Top of the Pops is on the telly, Duran Duran are on the radio and the wallpaper is highly offensive, it could only be the 80’s. It’s 1985, Ireland is going through financial problems causing wannabe musician, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) to move to Christian Brother’s Syne Street school. Conor’s private school manners don’t go down well with the school bully but Conor is more interested in the mysterious, older wannabe model, Raphina (Lucy Boynton). In a desperate attempt to woo her, Conor throws together a band and offers Raphina the chance to star in their first video. As Conor’s love affair with music blossoms, so does his love for Raphina.
What unfolds is an infectiously likeable, nostalgia tinged comedy that will serve as a stroll down memory lane for those old enough to remember, especially John Carney himself who based much of the film on his own adolescence spent in Dublin, that’s all pasted together with a childish sense of optimism and adventure. Even if you are too young to know who John Taylor is, it’s charming enough to get your feet tapping to its brilliant soundtrack.Sing Street manages to sidestep the overly sweet and cringe-worthy corniness of Carney’s sophomore effort, Begin Again. This is all down to the director instilling the film with an underpinning of harsh reality. Raphina insists that Conor needs to find his “happy/sad”, a contempt limbo state in which he can find happiness in the bad situation that is his life. And, it’s this tone that the director manages to imprint on his film. There are jokes about alcoholism and racism that gives the comedy an edge and depictions of domestic violence, that gives the drama a purpose. As well, Carney always keeps Ireland’s social issues subtly hidden in the background with Britain sitting on the horizon like a beacon of hope.
Carney proved with his first two films that he could intertwine a touching drama with perfectly placed musical interludes and he has done it once again (no pun intended). While the film may not be wholly original – in places it feels like The Commitments meets School of Rock meets Pride – but the director’s personal connection with the story and the city seeps through making it feel like it’s own record, rather than a cover.
Walsh-Peelo anchors the film with a strong debut performance and a believable, touching portrayal of youth that will ring true with pretty much everyone, not just the 80’s babies. One minute he’s Ziggy Stardust and next his Robert Smith, until eventually he begins to figure out exactly who he is. But that is the beauty of the film’s central character; he begins to discover who he is through music with his record collection used to reflect his journey through adolescence.Jack Reynor shines as Conor’s older brother, Brendan, a college dropout who offers up such wisdom as “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins”, although the less said about his dodgy wig the better. Boynton shows promise in the first act but her participation slowly decreases until when she is needed again in the finale, but she does enough to strike up a lovable relationship with Conor.
Yet, for all the fun of the first two acts, it struggles to direct everything to a satisfying conclusion. Conor’s bandmates are never really fleshed out, over-shadowed by the film’s love story and, as a result, slowly fade away. His parents and their domestic problems are pushed to the fringes making any emotional finale a little diluted.
Despite this last minute fumble, it does very little to detract from the immense amount of fun that’s to be had with Carney’s third offering. In a year that has offered up so few joyous experiences, Sing Street is something to hold onto and cherish.