Film review: Sing Street

David Gritten / 23 May 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten is charmed by Sing Street, a musical about Irish teenagers forming a pop band in the 80s.

Of all the films I’ve seen so far this year, Sing Street wins hands down in terms of sheer charm. You may think you wouldn’t care to watch a story about half a dozen Dublin schoolboys starting up a pop band; but this movie will dash your preconceptions almost from the start.

It’s heart-warming, touching, funny and insolent. While it’s also shot through with a dash of melancholy, it’s ultimately a feel-good triumph.

It comes from writer-director John Carney, who was once bassist in an Irish pop band (The Frames) himself; he was also responsible for Once (2007), an exquisite jewel of a film musical, about a delicate romance between a Dublin busker and a young Czech pianist.

Sing Street’s main characters are younger. Conor (the hugely talented Ferdia Walsh-Priedo) is a character loosely based on Carney’s own adolescence; he is a less than happy 15 year old with parents who have fallen on hard times and transferred him from private education, to the local Christian Brothers establishment for young hard-cases: Synge (sic) Street school.

Conor has a tough time adjusting to this harsher environment, and is initially bullied for his perceived poshness. But he makes a friend of Eamon (Mark McKenna), whose father plays in a covers band; he has inherited Dad’s competence on multiple musical instruments. They become the nucleus of the pop group. Conor’s older brother Brendan is a disenchanted drop-out who has prematurely given up on his future – but he knows his music and earnestly tutors Conor about the heroes he might emulate – Duran Duran among them.

All Conor needs now is a muse – and she arrives in the form of Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a beautiful, faintly troubled 16 year old girl who aspires to be a model. He persuades her to appear in the as yet unformed band’s first music video, and sweetly writes a catchy song about her, called The Riddle of the Model.

Alongside the formation of Sing Street the band, all sorts of things are happening. Conor changes his name to Cosmo, which clearly sounds cooler. His parents announce they are splitting up. The boys in the band change hairstyles and clothes, aping every impressive new group they see on Top of the Pops. And Conor’s relationship with Raphina goes through tricky patches.

But what underpins all this is the sheer excitement of being a teenager making music; the power of holding a guitar and knowing how to use it. Carney’s touch is everywhere; he wrote several songs for Sing Street, and they mostly hold their own against the real 80s hits on the soundtrack (except, notably Hall & Oates’s sublimed Maneater).

The melancholy, such as it is, lies in the sense of gloom in Irish life in this period; England, and particularly London, is constantly referenced as a place to aim for, somewhere where your dreams might come true. (It’s telling that Brendan has essentially accepted a dead-end future, while barely out of his teens.)  Yet the joy in music and in the making of it represents a way out, for those with the nerve to follow their convictions; this lovely film rightly ends on an appropriate note of defiant elation.

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