Leaning heavily on his music video roots, John Carney has concocted a captivating coming-of-age story in Sing Street. Though populated by a cadre of lesser-known actors, there are solid performances all around, and absolutely wonderful musical pieces. It is tangentially reminiscent of a small-scope Almost Famous, complete with a young man exploring the world of music, but in this case it is as a creator and not as a journalist. Further, Sing Street is much more family-life focused, and there is a decided follow-your-dreams lean to the theme of the film. But the undoubted strength of the film is its employment of music. Carney uses music for everything: characterization, relationship-building, thematic statements, and much, much more. Plus, the pieces are drop-dead fantastic, and the majority of the score is diegetic, which aids the realism of the film. Taken together, it is clear that Sing Street will contend with the very best films of 2016.
From a plot standpoint, this is a familiar coming-of-age story, complete with family troubles, a new school, and the desire to impress some cool chick. Set in Dublin in 1985, the main protagonist is Conor Lalor (Ferida Walsh-Peelo). He forms a band with some other misfits at his new school to impress the mysterious Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who claims to be a model. Though Conor isn’t the greatest musician and has very little artistic vision when he starts out playing cover songs, with guidance from his other band members and rock-obsessed older brother, he begins to develop his own songs and music videos as he woos Raphina and explores his own artistry and aspirations.
Sing Street offers a multitude of great characters, from the leads all the way down to the smallest supporting part. Conor in particular is fascinating: a musical chameleon that is comfortable trying on different identities as the film progresses. Obviously, this is also a wonderful proxy for the teenage experience as a whole, attempting to discover the person you want to be and the things you want to pursue. Raphina begins with notes of the ingénue or manic-pixie dream girl, but much of that is broken down as her character is fully revealed. Conor’s older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) is also surprisingly complex, and a crucial scene of his comes out of left field but lends the film the majority of its eventual pathos. Furthermore, all of the characters feature fully-fleshed out arcs. It is refreshing to see that a minor villain has a home life, his own anxieties, fears, and dreams, and that we actually get to see them!
But – and I cannot reiterate this enough – Sing Street derives its strength from the music and associated music videos. These inform nearly every aspect of the film, from the characterization of both protagonists and antagonists alike and the relationships between them, to the narrative structure and the thematic underpinnings of the film. Each of these aspects of the film is reflected in the music, much of which is original. There are plenty of ‘80s rock hits too, but the real moments of triumph all revolve around original songs, and it is incredibly fun to watch Conor and his writing partner work on a new piece. The whole utilization of music is so warm and life-affirming that it almost forces a smile onto your face. It is just awesome stuff, and I would not be surprised if we end up seeing multiple original songs from Sing Street at the Oscars early next year. There are also some beautiful cinematic tricks the film employs involving the band filming their music videos, almost all of which distort the reality of the film’s world for artistic effect.
All of this music, great characters, and a familiar plot is in service of the essential coming-of-age fare. There are generally two kinds of coming-of-age movies: 1.) Those which focus around a singular event and its resulting fallout (The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me) and 2.) Those which are more drawn-out and encompass an entire period of growth (Almost Famous, Mean Girls, My Girl). Sing Street is definitely the latter, and absolutely champions teenage rebellion, self-discovery, and artistic expression in wonderful ways. Despite my insistence that the coming-of-age film is fairly by-the-numbers in terms of the kinds of topics it can address, Sign Street manages to do so in such a refreshing and palatable way that it is impossible not to appreciate the film’s take on growing up, losing innocence, and beginning that first step towards flourishing adulthood.
Sing Street is a heartwarming, fun, and spectacular film. All the performances are realistic and multi-dimensional, the music and music videos are stirring, and the overall themes are timeless for both those in the process of growing up, and for those who remember that peculiar version of Hell. And, perhaps Sing Street can even remind us all that exploring passions and taking risks is always a worthwhile endeavor, and that there are many people involved in supporting such passions – even if we don’t always notice them.