Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
I’ve always been a fan of coming-of-age movies, especially when they succeed at balancing comedy and drama so well. That’s not an easy task to pull off, and it could result in an uneven mess. But when you do it right, you can expand your audience. It’s like this—you have a gritty, realistic story you want to tell, but you also have lighthearted elements that work within the context; that lightheartedness keeps audiences in; the audiences laugh and smile; then they notice what else the film has to offer and get sucked in even further; they talk about it afterwards; they tell their friends; their friends check it out; and there you go.
Then again, maybe that only happened to me. Basically, I heard the buzz about this film, “Sing Street,” and so I watched it on Netflix—now I’m practically imploring other people (including readers of this review) to see it.
I love “Sing Street.” This may be the film I’ve been waiting to see for a long time—a very charming, fun film that also tells a gripping story about growing up, brotherhood, and turning your personal turmoil into art. It was brought to us to the very talented Irish writer/director John Carney, whose 2007 musical “Once” stole many people’s hearts by stating what music can do to its characters and to the audience, much like this film does.
“Sing Street” takes place in Dublin, 1985. 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is caught in the middle of an unpleasant home life, in which his parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) won’t stop squabbling. His older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) escapes the household tension by smoking weed, while Conor ventures outward. After his parents transfer him from a prestigious private school to a rowdy Catholic school, he finds himself going from an unpleasant home life to an unpleasant school life—or just an unpleasant life overall, which is helped a little bit by watching new music videos with Brendan. Everything changes when he sees a pretty girl across the street from school and decides to walk over and talk to her.
This is Raphina (Lucy Boynton), and she’s everything Conor only dreams about—tall, beautiful, cool (in a very ‘80s sort of way—remember this film is set in 1985), and a model. But he asks her to be a video for his band, which she shockingly agrees to do. There’s only one problem—he doesn’t have a band! But soon enough, he puts one together out of some classmates who have musical talent and promotes himself as lead singer. Calling themselves “Sing Street,” they start off gaining inspiration from popular bands at the time, such as Duran Duran, but they soon come up with their own material and continuously create song after song after song, as they get better and better. For Conor, this is his way of escaping reality. His parents won’t stop fighting and his personal bully, as well as the school’s principal, won’t stop tormenting him. But if he can bring his music to London with dreams of making it big, he has something to aim for in a new journey. After all, in this bleak time when there are hardly any jobs to be found and many Dubliners are emigrating to London, why shouldn’t he go to London and be a rock star?
This film not only speaks to teenage garage bands who make their own love songs instead of play them on stereo for possible love interests, but it also speaks to many others. It’s easy for people to see themselves in one or two of these characters. Many of them are people who aspire for something greater than what they have, and this film represents “the dreamer” in various ways—for example, there’s the dreamer that awaits the dream to come true, the dreamer that regrets not chasing the dream at first, the dreamer that lives through art, and even the dreamer that actually does go to London to seek the dream. We all have ambitions and dreams in real life and things always get in the way. “Sing Street” speaks to all of us.
It even gets the fantasies right. There’s a scene in which Sing Street is making another amateur music video and trying to make it a ‘50s American prom setting (based on what they saw in “Back to the Future”). They have very little production design and very few extras who don’t get the concept of what dancing was like in that era, but what Conor imagines, in a very well-done fantasy sequence, is greater than they could possibly pull off.
And the film is also a touching tale about brotherhood. I love the realistic brotherly relationship between Conor and Brendan. Brendan isn’t the typical jerk of an older sibling you see in many coming-of-age movies—he’s more helpful than he is condescending, his criticisms of Conor’s band help him along the way, and he wants his little brother to succeed where he hasn’t. Sometimes, he loses his temper, but as you get to know more about him, you understand why he does this.
But of course, I can’t neglect to talk about the music. It’s unfair to say the music in a musical is “unmemorable” after only seeing it once—I mean, Roger Ebert even thought the songs in “The Lion King” would be forgotten back when that movie was released. There is one song from “Sing Street” that I can hum to myself as I write this review (“Drive it Like You Stole It,” a very catchy tune), but I can’t forget how good the other music-video sequences made me feel as I was watching them. And maybe after I see this film a few more times (which I surely will), the songs will stay with me over time.
If there is a line of dialogue I will take from this movie (and not from a song lyric), it’s this one: “I’m going to try and accept it and get on with it and make some art.” Conor says this in reference to how he’s going to deal with being a world full of “morons and rapists and bullies” because that’s just how life is. The artist in me appreciated that moment, just as the critic in me appreciated “Sing Street.” It’s wonderfully executed, brilliantly acted, charming to the max, and one of the best films of the year.