It’s a story after my own heart.
Irish kid alienated from quarrelling parents is forced to attend school run by the Christian Brothers; is beaten up by upper classmen; bullied by the Brothers; fosters deep strains of romantic idealism; becomes wholly alienated from school and family; is duly impressed by older brother’s record collection; decides the only way out is through music.
Or, as the promotional poster for Irish writer/director John Carney’s “Sing Street” would rather blithely have it: “Boy meets girl. Girl unimpressed. Boy starts band.”
Carney, whose previous films “Once” and “Begin Again” made plain his consummate skill as a director able to marry music – the influence of that music on the characters, and the music itself – to narrative in a visceral and deeply moving manner, has done it again with “Sing Street.” If you grew up in the 1980s, witnessed the rise of the music video as an art form, started a band with your fellow outcasts and at least considered applying makeup and hairspray prior to a gig at the high school, and if your tastes ran toward the alternative music of the day, “Sing Street” unrolls like a well-edited pastiche of home movies from your adolescence.
If you hail from a different era, it doesn’t matter. Carney has once again skillfully crafted a tale with universal overtones that places a passion for music at the heart of the action. Being in a garage band is treated as a noble endeavor, not a cheap gag, by Carney, whose own youth is mirrored in the struggles of Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, who is more than up to the job of portraying idealism and bluffed insouciance simultaneously).
As his parents split after years of ignoring their three children and existing in a bubble of shared torment, and his middle-class status is threatened, Connor crosses paths with Raphina, a striking Irish lass who has obviously fallen hard for Madonna’s then-recent “Desperately Seeking Susan” look.
Raphina (a stunning Lucy Boynton) dangles an unlit cigarette from her lips, Wayfarer shades hiding her eyes and indifference masking her features, until Connor spurts “I’m in a band, would you be in our video?” Raphina removes the shades, and Connor’s goose is cooked, for hers are the sort of deep green-blue pools that many an Irish would-be poet has longed to drown in.
This could all be standard adolescent love story fare, but Carney’s genius lies in his ability to craft wholly believable dialogue, and to frame that dialogue in the music of the day. (Anyone who spent any time listening to the Cure, early Duran Duran, Echo & the Bunnymen or Joy Division will know that music is deeply emotive, occasionally melodramatic and more than occasionally grandiose and reverb-drenched form of guitar-driven Euro-pop.)
It’s the dialogue that makes “Sing Street” sing, as in this early exchange between Connor and older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). Connor has just played Brendan a dodgy cassette recording of his fledgling band – named Sing Street, as is the Christian Brothers School the spotty lads comprising the band attend – doing a (barely) passable cover of Duran Duran’s “Rio.”
“That was bad, bad music. And there is nothing as bad in this world as bad music,” says Brendan. “You want to have actual sexual intercourse, right?”
“Yeah – wait, what?” responds Connor.
“The girl. It’s all about the girl, isn’t it?” counters Brendan.
“Yeah, the girl, yeah,” Connor mumbles.
“And you’re going to use someone else’s art to get her – are you kidding?”
After Connor mutters something about this being a new band that needs to learn how to play, Brendan becomes apoplectic. “Did the Sex Pistols know how to play? You don’t need to know how to play. Who are you, Steely Dan? You need to learn how not to play, Connor. That’s the trick, that’s rock ’n’ roll.”
The scene is comedic, but Carney’s point is made. Connor reveres his older brother, a college drop-out stoner who has nothing in the world, save a killer record collection and a rapier wit. From that point forward, Sing Street will play original music, and Connor will be a songwriter.
The oldest adage in the book suggests that guys start bands in order to get girls. But Carney understands that this is only a partial truth. Guys like Connor start bands to conjure a reality bigger and broader than their birthright. Invariably, a girl will be involved, but this is desperate, yearning-infused, and ultimately doomed romance – think William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne – not a simple one-night stand. Carney respects Connor’s idealism, quite likely because he still clings to that idealism himself.
As “Sing Street” ends, Connor and Raphina are en route to London from Dublin, via a perilous ride on a small fishing boat across the Irish Sea. We never know if they make it, or what fate their dreams meet.
No matter. Carney has pulled a beautiful and bittersweet dream from the ether and shared it with us. As seen through his lens, it’s a dream that needn’t die with age. And it doesn’t. Trust me.
3 and ½ stars (out of four)
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Mark McKenna.
Director: John Carney
Rating: PG-13 for language.
Running Time: 106 minutes
The Lowdown: A budding Romantic Idealist in 1980s Dublin forms a band to grab the attention of a femme fatale.