Ireland (2016) Dir. John Carney
Is it possible to discuss Sing Street without making any comparisons to 1991’s classic The Commitments? To wit: both are set in Dublin, both are about playing music to escape one’s woes, and both very funny, evocative yarns. The older film is much grittier but the passion is the same (as well as a shared actress), but there ends the similarities.
Set in 1985 15 year-old Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is unhappy with his lot in life. His parents Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are constantly fighting while Robert’s architect business is struggling, leading to some family cost cutting. This means Conor moving from his fee-paying school to the strict Christian free state-school, Synge Street.
Having clashed with school bully Barry (Ian Kenny) and headmaster Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley) on his first day, Conor’s mood is lifted when espying Raphina (Lucy Boynton), the mysterious girl outside the school gates. Conor introduces himself to Raphina, learning she is an aspiring model, and invites her to star in his band’s music video, to which she agrees – except Conor doesn’t have a band.
For the sake of expedience, the formation of the group is conducted at break neck speed, and like most of the film, we are to overlook the usual growing pains that accompany such a venture. Therefore we accept that the five lads who eventually make up Sing Street are genuinely precocious musical talents able to get their act together in such a short amount of time.
Joining Conor for the ride are manager/video cameraman Darren (Ben Carolan), multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter Eamon (Mark McKenna), drummer Larry (Conor Hamilton), diminutive bass player Garry (Karl Rice) and keyboard player Ngig (Percy Chamburuka). Raphina becomes an unofficial sixth member as the star of their videos, while their musical style is dictated by Conor’s older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor).
With Conor’s motives for forming a band being dubious at best, yet true to the reason most guys form a band – to impress the girls – the story begins to reveal a different driving force for the lovestruck lad. Despite being rich with cheeky Irish humour writer-director John Carney does paint a bleak picture of 1980’s Ireland as one of a country that has little hope to offer the current generations let alone the future ones.
Gradually it is the world around him that forces Conor to re-evaluate his attitude towards life and provide inspiration for his song lyrics, all the while keeping Raphina as his primary muse. The first song Riddle Of The Model is a blatant ode to Raphina, but later efforts become more subtle and poetic, often personal and introspective – perhaps a little too loquacious for a 15 year-old…
As Conor reveals himself in his songs and his ever-changing image – a result of Brendan’s musical mentoring, going from New Romantic to Goth to Trendy Pop – the rest of the cast sadly aren’t afforded such attention. The others in the band are quickly relegated to obediently buttressing Conor’s musical vision after providing some cute comic relief in the early going.
Raphina is presented as the elusive pot of gold at the end of Conor’s rainbow of infatuation. Supposedly only a year older, Raphina is already on her way to being a model with a promise of a gig in London. Yet behind closed doors her life is tainted with loneliness and tragedy, another confused soul who needs help fulfilling a dream to save their sanity.
Elsewhere there is school bully Barry, an unfortunately typical product of an unhappy home, and the puritanical oppression of the Brother Baxter, his violent and pernicious enforcing of the rules in the name of the Lord earns him a tribute song! This doesn’t paint suburban Dublin in a particularly positive light, and one wonders if Carney was airing some personal grievances but it’s a potent motivation to better oneself in life.
But is Brendan who proves to be the main catalyst in Conor’s life, sharing his sardonic wisdom and musical knowledge with his younger brother, the root of which is exposed during an uncharacteristic outburst of emotion in the final act. He himself is a product of a world he despises but took the wrong route of escape, a mistake he doesn’t want to see happen again.
For all this grim introspection and sobering burst of reality, the film maintains a quirky upbeat positive energy throughout. The usual success may elude them but the sheer joy of creating music and uniting people through the songs is reward enough. Co-written by 80s composer Gary Clark, the songs are legit catchy ditties, neatly aping the various artists Conor is exposed too – such as Duran Duran, the Cure and Hall & Oates.
This won’t mean much to some, but to a neurological pedant like me there are some egregious anachronisms in the musical choices. A Top Of The Pops episode features Duran Duran’s Rio, released in 1982 and Spandau Ballet’s Gold from 1983! Starship’s 1987 hit Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now is also played and, this is a localised one, the film Back To The Future is discussed, didn’t hit Irish cinemas until December 1985.
But this doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of this film at all, avoidable as these errors are. The cast are universally superb, many first timers, including Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Mark McKenna, both genuine musicians. The fact the cast are Irish – save for English actress Lucy Boynton, essaying Raphina as an ephemeral love interest – allows their native charm and Pawky humour to enhance the realism of the story.
Straddling a fine line between mainstream fantasist whimsy and poignant social satire, Sing Street sets out its stall as a relatable and up lifting paean to following your dreams from the onset and pins you down for 105 of the most joyous toe-tapping nostalgic minutes you’ll experience this year.
Great songs, great performances, great film!