“SING STREET” — 3½ stars — Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jack Reynor; PG-13 (thematic elements including strong language and some bullying behavior, a suggestive image, drug material and teen smoking); Sundance
Director John Carney captivated audiences at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival with “Once,” a film about a pair of songwriters in Ireland. Now, Carney is back, and he’s set the 1980s in his musical sights.
“Sing Street” is about a 15-year-old boy who forms a band so he can impress a girl. It’s kind of a cross between “School of Rock” and “The Commitments,” with a little “Almost Famous” thrown in.
Carney’s film is a portrait of a beloved decade, an essay on the struggles of a family and evidence of how good music can be silly and sublime and elevate you through good times and bad. If you’ve ever been in a band, or if you’ve ever let a song get to you a little more than you should have, you must see this film.
“Sing Street’s” protagonist is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a lanky loner under a mop of brown hair in 1985 Dublin. His parents’ marriage is on the rocks, money is tight and he’s just enrolled at a school for boys called Synge Street. Upon arrival, Conor is immediately targeted by the school’s official bully and harassed by a no-nonsense priest who insists that Conor wear black shoes to school.
But salvation arrives in the form of a 16-year-old vision named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who lives in the home for girls across the street from the school. In a rush of confidence, Conor introduces himself, finds out she’s an aspiring model and invites her to be in a music video for his band. To prove his credentials, he sings her a few bars from A-ha’s “Take On Me.”
Conor may have a voice, but he doesn’t have a band. So he quickly recruits a number of musically minded cohorts. In no time, the band is writing music and cluttering up seedy Dublin alleys with band equipment and goofy costumes pulled from their parents’ closets as they try to videotape their way to stardom. Raphina eagerly participates, looking like a woman among mere boys because, well, that’s pretty much what she is.
The growth of the band becomes a humorous vehicle for Carney to showcase the best and worst of ‘80s fashion, as Conor works his way through a variety of looks and styles as he searches music videos by Duran Duran and The Cure for the right identity for the band (and himself). Things are still rough at school, but in spite of her Phil Collins-loving boyfriend, Conor even makes some steady progress with Raphina.
But the bigger challenges are happening at home. As Conor’s parents continue to struggle, he turns more and more to his dropout older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) for direction. Brendan is the Lester Bangs to Conor’s William Miller, providing often-hilarious guidance for both the band and his pursuit of Raphina. But as “Sing Street” moves along, Brendan proves to be worth more than a few one-liners, and their brotherly connection becomes a major highlight of the film.
Reynor’s performance might be the most powerful, but Walsh-Peelo’s work as Conor is endearing and surprising, given his character’s humble first impression, and Boynton is perfect as the girl who seems just out of his reach.
Like “Once,” “Sing Street” also works a variety of original numbers into its soundtrack, mainly with the help of songwriter Gary Clark. The songs are a bit more on the pop end of the spectrum compared with the melancholy fare Glen Hansard wrote for Carney’s earlier film, but often they capture the spirit of the decade they celebrate. (Hansard also contributes a song to the “Sing Street” soundtrack.)
By the time we get through the twists and turns of the third act, Carney delivers a healthy dose of nostalgia along with a memorable rock 'n' roll story. Often “Sing Street” behaves like one of the ‘80s music videos it loves, losing itself in its own energy at the expense of pure, gritty reality. But it can also be transcendent, and “Sing Street” will be instantly beloved by anyone who has ever picked up a guitar or knocked around a drum kit.
"Sing Street" is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including strong language and some bullying behavior, a suggestive image, drug material and teen smoking; running time: 106 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.