By Michael Gray
John Carney, rising star of Irish cinema, scored a big success nine years ago with his directorial debut “Once”, a charming and unconventional musical that won an Oscar for Best Song. The film’s love story quickly morphed into an irresistible stage show that toured to packed houses around the world. Live concerts by his lead actors, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, soon followed, and, for good measure, there was a documentary as well, about the travails of the musicians’ real-life hugs and tiffs, off-screen and on tour. Carney’s next feature foray into musical romance, “Begin Again”, came with a bigger budget and certified star wattage in Keira Knightly and Mark Ruffalo, but found him on less sure footing, and failed to charm audiences as “Once” had done.
Carney’s latest film takes him back to what he does best – using music as a catalyst for romance, in his native city of Dublin. “Sing Street” is set in Ireland’s capital in the 1980s, in the depths of the pre-Celtic Tiger recession that seemed like it would go on forever. Carney’s lead character, Connor, played by teenage newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, takes the brunt of his family’s economic woes when his cash-strapped parents decide that they need to cut costs by taking him out of private school, to submit him instead to the no-fees, no frills, rough-and-tumble of a Christian Brothers education. Shy and awkward, Connor is a soft target for bullies at his new school, and finds little solace at home as the tensions between his mum and dad cause their marriage to unravel.
In the decade that launched U2, Hothouse Flowers, Aslan, and indeed Carney’s old pals the Frames out of Dublin and into the world, what better escape from all this misery could a young misfit find than to start a band?
Connor’s inner rock-n-roller is awakened when he meets a beautiful but daft girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) on the way home from his new school. Impossibly pretty, and, at 17, an older woman, she seems way out of his league. But Connor impresses her by claiming he is putting a band together. Having made this announcement, he has to make good on it, and he quickly sets about recruiting a motley group of gawky teen talents, in scenes that are a fond reminder of “The Commitments,” everybody’s favorite celluloid band from Dublin. Raphina has ambitions of her own to be a make-up artist, and in a decade defined by shoulder pads, back-combed hair and MTV, this burgeoning boyband Sing Street needs her skills. Suddenly they have just the excuse they need to meet more often. Romance soon buds and blossoms, as Connor hones his songwriting skills, sidelines her older boyfriend, and learns to be comfortable being himself.
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Carney’s exuberant embrace of sappy teen love and shiny plastic ‘80s synth-pop proves a winning combination in “Sing Street”, and gives us a joyous romantic comedy that in less skilled hands could have been just another cliché from that timeworn template of dudes starting bands to get girls. Walsh-Peelo and Boynton are charming and winsome as the lovelorn couple, and Jack Reynor, a subdued lead in both “Glasslands” and “What Richard Did”, steal the show here as Connor’s charismatic older brother Brendan, a college dropout and hippy slacker who appoints himself the band’s Svengali. Under his Machiavellian tutelage, Connor’s band reaches the pinnacle of success in their world, a gig in the gym at the school end-of-term party. Carney is old-fashioned enough to leave us with a cliffhanger ending that begs for a sequel, and if “Once” got its own Broadway show, then ‘80s nostalgia-fest “Sing Street” deserves one too.
“Sing Street” is currently playing in 18 theaters in the New York metropolitan area.