While UK multiplexes again shake to the sub woofer rumble of another CGI heavy comic book biffathon, the film you should really see is deliriously delightful Irish coming-of-age comedy drama Sing Street. Here’s why…
It is the oldest song in the book, boy starts band to impress girl. But just as pop music often takes influences from the music of previous generations, so writer/director John Carney’s new film Sing Street takes familiar coming of age/first love material and makes it feel fresh.
Set in Dublin in 1985 the film finds Ireland economically blighted with large numbers of young people fleeing to mainland UK in search of jobs. The middle class Lalor family is hit hard by the shrinking economy. Patriarch Robert (Aiden Gillen) has found work hard to come by. Eldest son Brendan (Jack Reynor) has dropped out of college and is living at home. Struggling to make mortgage payments Robert and his wife Penny decide to pull their youngest son Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) out of the fee-laying Jesuit school he attends to send him to state school.
A fish out of water in his new environment Conor instantly runs into trouble with the school bully and the school principal Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley). However, his attentions are quickly drawn away from these threats when he catches sight of Raphina (Lucy Boynton) outside the school gates. After she tells him she is a model, Conor is inspired by the Duran Duran video he has just watched on Top of the Pops and asks her to be in his new band’s video.
Trouble is, he isn’t in a band and isn’t even all that interested in music. Time to form one. With the help of self appointed ‘manager’ Darren (Ben Carolan) Conor is introduced to Eamon (Mark McKenna) who is not only a multi instrumentalist, but also has a home full of instruments belonging to his father who plays in a covers band and who is absent drying out in a clinic for alcoholics. They find a keyboard player in Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) the one black kid in school. An A4 poster tacked up on the school notice board produces a rhythm section. ‘Sing Street’ the band is born.
Sing Street the movie has gathered comparisons to The Commitments but apart from actress Maria Doyle Kennedy, a Dublin setting and a musical theme the two films have very little in common. The Commitments were a professional band playing cover versions of sixties classics, Sing Street are a school band formed by kids at a time where their personal identities and musical tastes are equally fluid.
Conor’s romantic progress with Raphia is blocked by the irksome presence of an older boyfriend with a VW Golf convertible. Conor comes from a comfortable background and has suddenly been faced with difficulties, but Raphina has only ever known poverty and even if the boyfriend has terrible taste in music (as represented by Phil Collins) he could offer her a way out of the social and economic stagnation of Dublin that a doe-eyed schoolboy cannot.
Hidden beneath the greasy rags of social realism is a glittering new gold dream. Sing Street is a fairy tale, and like any good fairy tale there is dark material in the background. But it is presented with a remarkable lightness of touch that doesn’t dampen the fun, but enriches it giving the movie and its characters actual stakes to lose. There is a quietly chilling scene in which the spectre of abuse is raised, and another in which Raphia reveals a devastating piece of information about her past so matter of factly that neither Conor or the viewer is quite sure she has said what they think she has.
Conor and Raphina are rich, three dimensional people who the audience will care about. And Walsh-Peelo and Boynton are both terrific in the roles with palpable on-screen chemistry. The emerging love story is the film’s warm beating heart, the formation and development of the band in effect becomes the films ‘secondary romance’. Apart from co-song writer Eamon the other band members are sketches. Nevertheless, they are memorable sketches. When the film is over, it feels like there are still more stories to be told about these characters.
Carney co-writes the original songs with former Danny Wilson front man Gary Clark. It is a testament to how good these are that you will be as likely come out the movie humming the chorus of Sing Street songs Girls or Drive Like You Stole It, as The Jam, Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet hits that feature.
The band’s first song The Riddle of the Model and the hilariously amateurish but overreaching video they shoot, would fit comfortably into an episode of Flight of the Conchords. It is a finely tuned pastiche of eighties new wave with Walsh-Peelo affecting a vocal style that is very close to Jemain Clement. Part of Sing Street’s charm is how well it captures the excitement of youthful discovery. Brendan takes it upon himself to school his younger brother in music, and Conor and the band’s sartorial and musical style changes to reflect whatever they are into that week or even day. Moving from new romantic, to goth, to plastic soul, they never quite settle on an identity, but become more confident with time. The songs move from pastiche to something more genuine as Conor’s lyrics take on more sophistication. It is both a witty dramatic device, and something that is organic to the characters.
Funny and moving, fizzing with energy and enthusiasm, I enjoyed Sing Street so much that when the end credits ran I wanted to seek out the merch stall and buy the t-shirt.