In 2007 Irish filmmaker John Carney wrote and directed a hugely successful (including an Academy Award win for Best Original Song) film called Once. A sweet, semi-musical about a down on his luck folk singer who meets a woman who inspires him and then creates an album with her and a rag tag group of friends. In 2013 John Carney wrote and directed Begin Again, a sweet, semi-musical about a down on his luck record producer who finds inspiration in a young woman and her music. They get a rag tag group of musicians together and make an album. In 2016 John Carney has written and directed a film called Sing Street about an Irish teenager in 1980s Dublin. He meets a girl who inspires him and gets a rag tag group of friends together to start a band. About 20 or so minutes into Sing Street the main character’s brother, chastising him for covering someone else’s song and encouraging him to be original, says, “Rock and roll is a risk…you risk being ridiculed!” So the question is this: is John Carney merely making a cover of a film he’s arguably made twice before or has he created something fresh and new? Has he taken a risk? The answer, at least for me, is hell yes he’s taken a risk and it’s paid off in spades. Sing Street is a bouncy, melancholic, crowd pleasing rocking good time that transcends both Once and Begin Again.
Back in 2007 I was a huge fan of Once. It was so raw and genuine and original. It would be misleading to say I was disappointed in Begin Again because I absolutely adore that film and listen to the soundtrack constantly. However, it struck me on first, and subsequent, viewings as a more polished remix of Once. Again, it’s a film I really, really like, but it just doesn’t have that same spark that Once had. Carney is mining a lot of the same material in both films. Sing Street is definitely cut from the same cloth as those two, but it’s a whole other kind of outfit. It’s a ruffled satin blouse with paisley pants and heels to the other two films’ flannel and denim. Sing Street is about family and romance and friendship and brotherhood and class. It’s an 80s punk song about melancholy and regret. It’s a glam rock anthem about what it means to be a teenager going through some shit while you’re trying to figure out who you are and what your place in the world is. It’s also a really good movie.
The main character in Sing Street, Conor Lalor (the most Irish name ever) is played by wonderful newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (ok, maybe that’s the most Irish name ever). So far Sing Street is his only credit on IMDB, but I have no doubt we’ll be seeing him more. Walsh-Peelo turns in an amazing performance as a boy whose parents’ marriage is beginning to fall apart and, on top of that, is being forced to switch schools to save the family some money. I got the impression that Conor’s previous school was kind of a posh affair. His new school is filled with street toughs from the neighborhood. Conor immediately sticks out both to his classmates and the school’s headmaster, a no-nonsense bully of a priest. Eventually Conor makes a friend and notices a girl who lives across the street from the school. Now, before I tell you what happens next it’s important that you know that Conor has an older brother, Brendan, and that his older brother is OBSESSED with music. Brendan, Jack Reynor (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Macbeth), and Conor watch Top of the Pops together religiously, Brendan educating Conor on the intricacies of a newfangled art form they both are falling in love with called music videos. So, when Conor goes up to talk to the girl he’s seen at school and she tells him she’s a model, Conor immediately responds that he’s looking for a model for a music video his band is making. But there’s no band. Not yet, anyway.
The movie takes off from there as Conor convinces his new friend to help him form a band. They assemble a group of school misfits together and start making music. One of the joys of this movie is in watching how the band’s style evolves over the course of the school year. Conor really doesn’t know that much about music, it’s his brother Brendan who is the expert. So as Conor and the band begin to experiment and record songs, Brendan listens to what they’ve done and gives Conor records of new bands to listen to. Conor suddenly finds himself completely immersed in the world of writing songs with his new mates, recording music videos with the band, and falling in love with The Girl. These all serve as great distractions to the grim reality that is life at home with parents who are starting to really hate each other.
So let’s talk about The Girl, Raphina, played by Lucy Boynton. One of Sing Street’s biggest strengths is that “The Girl,” isn’t just The Girl. Her story is just as complex as Conor’s. Yes, she absolutely serves as his inspiration and yes, he is essentially trying to reach self-actualization through his relationship with her. This is dangerous ground that could easily wander into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but it doesn’t. Raphina is an incredibly grounded character who has wants and needs and desires of her own. I wouldn’t quite call her a co-lead, but it’s really close. Honestly, I think John Carney does pretty well in this regard in all three of his films. If you think about Marketa Irglova and Keria Knightley’s characters in Once and Begin Again those characters also have their own distinct stories going on.
The other huge strength of the movie is the music. I want desperately to write a really articulate paragraph here about how awesome it is, but the fact is I don’t have the vocabulary or experience to talk about this kind of music (or really any music that isn’t Big Band or Beach Boys). So I’m going to be stuck with telling you how I felt listening to the music in this film: thrilled, excited, delighted, sad, melancholic, heartbroken, amused, rebellious. The audience I was with rapturous during the music scenes. There is genuine emotion at play here that at times had us cracking up, crying, and applauding. There was literal applause during my screening. I’d also add that there were several times during the film where I missed spots of dialogue because the audience was laughing so much. This is a FUNNY film.
So, what makes Sing Street transcend Once and Begin Again? I think it’s the family drama. Begin Again had some family drama going on, but it wasn’t as much a part of the film as is the case in Sing Street. Not only is Conor dealing with the breakup of his parents, but he’s exploring a new side to his relationship with his brother and they are able to bond more than they have previously. I feel like you don’t get to see stories about brothers very much anymore unless there’s a crime family involved, but Conor and Brendan’s relationship is the heart and soul of this film and the journey they go on together really moved me. It doesn’t hurt that Jack Reynor steals every scene that he’s in. That guy is going places. I can’t wait to see more movies with him in it. The rest of the supporting cast is also solid, including The Wire and Game of Thrones alum Aidan Gillen.
Overall Sing Street is definitely worth a watch and should be seen in the theaters with a big crowd. The story is incredibly moving and the music is fantastic. It’s also chock full of great performances. John Carney really has something special on his hands with this film. If he’s to be believed in this interview this will be his last musical for awhile. Once, Begin Again, and Sing Street have acted as a kind of unofficial trilogy, spiritual cousins if you will. I can’t wait to see what he does as he moves beyond this phase of his career. Sing Street premiered earlier this year at Sundance and screened last weekend at the Dallas International Film Festival. It’s now in limited release. Go see it!