Sing Street is all infectious joy

I may never recover from the muscle damage done by Sing Street. Seriously, smiling for over two hours straight at director John Carney’s latest ode to the power of one person and their guitar made kind of a Joker-rictus thing set in, as I’m still grinning ear to ear while I write this review.

Set in Ireland during the ‘80s, Sing Street is the chronicle of young Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager in a family that’s falling apart in an Ireland that seems to be doing the same. In order to save some money, given how poor and divorcing his family is, Conor is being moved to Synge Street, a hard-knocks boys school ran by the biggest asshole in the UK, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherly).

One day, he sees an enchanting lass across the street from the front gates, a model named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). In order to talk to her, he lies and says that he’s in a band and they need her for a music video. When she agrees, he decides to stop lying and get a band together with the help of budding entrepreneur Darren (Ben Carolan) and multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna). The band, Sing Street, takes Conor on a journey through 80’s alternative music, but also through budding adulthood.

Sing Street is a bit of a repeat for Carney. Previous films Once and Begin Again are similar odes to the power of creation and the potency of art as an emotional force. All his films (so far) have  centered on male-female relationships that ebbed and flowed around the music the lead created. Both were struck with an impossible earnestness as Carney doesn’t do irony, everything he does is going in with double barrels blazing and loaded with love.

But Sing Street absolutely feels like a natural evolution out of both of those films, taking the disparate elements of both and fusing them into something that feels fresh cinematically even if it isn’t so much narratively (for Carney anyway).

Once is raw in a way few movie musicals ever have been, from its filming style to its non-professional acting performances. Once is all nerves laid bare, the slightest provocation feeling having deep resonance. Sing Street runs with that emotional depth, and turns it personal. Carney has called this autobiographical, and it’s hard not to believe him watching. There’s too many specific ideas and conversational turns that make it clear that somebody involved went through this experience at one point. Sing Streets authenticity comes from specificity, the idea that no story could be told but this one.

Begin Again is all artificiality, and it’s why that one definitely doesn’t stand on the same level as Once or Sing Street. But Sing Street picks up the way that Begin Again felt above standard narrative tropes. Begin Again feels that even with artificial construction, it was possible to let a story unfold naturally. Time and time again, Sing Street chooses to go forward when it could zag, and I mean that in the best way. It never feels as though drama comes from the checklists of a screenwriting book that someone poured over, it grows naturally out of who these characters are.

Which is really where Sing Street begins to carve its own path forward and become the film that I really did fall in love with over those two hours. Carney clearly cares about these characters and wants to give them the experiences that they deserve to have. But he understands too that people aren’t perfect, and he never feels as though he gets too close to them to not see their flaws. Conor is talented and kind-hearted, but selfish and short-sighted at times, and Carney knows how to play that act and get the audience caring about every breath he takes.

I’ve said his name a lot, so I seriously want to shout props to Walsh-Peelo for his lead performance. The film hinges on how much you want him to succeed and he really does an amazing job of being someone to root for without being perfect. I think this kid is gonna go far.

And even taking aside the characters for a second, this is just a damn fine piece of musical. Carney clearly knows the era and imbues the songs with a specific character (which really is the reason that the Starbucks-rock of Begin Again didn’t stick) where you can hear the Duran Duran, The Cure, Depeche Mode, and U2 influences that actually make these songs feel like they grew out of the time and place he’s setting the flick in.

Plus, they’re just damn fun songs. Seriously, I dare you to watch this and not drive home singing “Drive It Like You Stole It” to yourself. I mean, it helps that the fantasy sequence this song plays in is the best part of the film, a joyous ode to the world that Conor imagines he could live in, but it’s also just a catchy song.

In fact, Sing Street is a catchy film, let’s be real here. Scenes and moments and lines and songs get stuck in your head and you play them over and over again in your mind, wanting to return to that feeling the first time you saw it. It’s pure, infectious joy, no matter what’s going on narratively. It’s a celebration of youth and creation and the complications of growing up from a mind that remembers how he went through it all too clearly. No matter when you’re trying to find yourself, you’ll find it here in Sing Street.

Grade: A

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