The 1980s has almost become a shared touchstone for our collective youths. Regardless of when we were actually born, the excesses, the music, and the bad hair are where we have universally decided all childhood memory began. Whether it’s the John Hughes version of US teen romance by way of Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles, or Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl over the pond in the UK, our common memories of the decade are of love never running smooth and ridiculously good soundtracks. John Carney’s SING STREET taps into all of this, but in the spirit of the genre, marches to its own beat while doing so.
In the midst of marital woes between his parents (Game of Thrones‘ Aiden Gillen and Oprhan Black‘s Maria Doyle Kennedy) and a severe economic crisis across Ireland in 1985, middle-child Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) bears the brunt of the family’s financial downsizing and is sent to a strict Christian Brothers school on Synge Street. Searching for an escape from his home life and being bullied at school, Conor convinces his slightly older crush and aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton) to star in the music videos for his band. Now all he has to do is form one.
Rather than being just a collection of nostalgic tunes, Carney follows Once and Begin Again by exploring a character through their songwriting, this time against the backdrop of a difficult time in Irish history. The popular tunes are there, of course, in the form of a killer soundtrack that includes The Cure, Duran Duran, and Spandau Ballet. Yet the coming-of-age elements are explored through a set of beautiful original songs as well, largely written by 80s veteran composer Gary Clark. The deliberately Duran Duran inspired “The Riddle of the Model” is a riff on Conor’s new love. “Drive It Like You Stole It” is undoubtedly the catchy populist song of the piece, but it’s more personal fare like “Up” and “To Find You” that you’ll be hearing from buskers and in wedding processionals until the end of time. At least when they’re done with Jason Mraz covers.
Relative newcomer Walsh-Peelo is a likeable lead, providing the viewer with a sanguine outlook on otherwise miserable circumstances. “Your problem is that you’re not happy being sad,” counsels Raphina, completely cutting through the treacle. “But that’s what love is: happy/sad.” Boynton in turn is an enigma of her own, the camera lingering on her through Conor’s eyes, so that we share both their heartbreak and joy. Much of the rest of the band is purely there for comic relief, with the one exception of Conor’s older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). The latter has all the outward angst and encyclopedic music knowledge that his younger sibling aspires to, albeit filtered through a persona that can only be described as an Irish Seth Rogen. In a mirror tale, his support of his brother acts as his own redemption for what he perceives to be a wasted life.
Coming from Ireland, it’s hard to escape the spectre of Roddy Doyle and The Commitments. It certainly shares a similar story arc, although SING STREET is a film of unabashed optimism and dream pursuit. Shot through a series of increasingly proficient music videos, there’s a proper fantasy sequence that pulls on Back to the Future and 1950s proms as the ultimate form of escapism. It foreshadows the film’s ultimate resolution, almost the antithesis of The Graduate‘s bittersweet ambiguity, and might just encourage the audience to stick to their own dreams.
2016 | Ireland, US, UK | DIR: John Carney | WRITERS: John Carney | CAST: Lucy Boynton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Aidan Gillen, Jack Reynor, Kelly Thornton, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo | DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow Films | RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes | RATING: ★★★★