Sundance Film Review: ‘Sing Street’

Lightning strikes thrice as Irish writer-director John Carney's let's-make-a-band formula once more yields winning results.

Sing Street Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

He’s no Vincente Minnelli in the visual storytelling department, but no 21st-century filmmaker has a more intuitive understanding of movie-musical construction than Irishman John Carney. After “Once” and “Begin Again” both beautifully unpacked the narrative nature of the songwriting process, he’s back at it with an added dose of 1980s childhood nostalgia in “Sing Street,” a heart-melting adolescent romance that gives teenage garage bands everywhere a better name. Perched on a tricky precipice between chippy kitchen-sink realism and lush wish-fulfilment fantasy, this mini-“Commitments” gets away with even its cutesiest indulgences thanks to a wholly lovable ensemble of young Irish talent and the tightest pop tunes — riffing on Duran Duran and the Cure with equal abandon and affection — any gaggle of Catholic schoolboys could hope to write themselves. Given the right marketing and word of mouth, this Weinstein Co. release could “Sing” a song of far more than sixpence.

“Did the Sex Pistols know how to play? Who are you, Steely Dan?” Thus is gawky 15-year-old Conor (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) admonished by his music-mad older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) when he voices concerns about forming a band with minimal musical training. The example of the anarchic British icons is also what motivated the dorky teenage heroines of “We Are the Best!” to take the stage; Carney’s pic merits comparison with Lukas Moodysson’s 2013 gem in many respects, though a battle-of-the-bands showdown between their respective collectives would certainly be the most welcome way to weigh the films up against each other.

Not that punk is on the agenda when Conor, a well-to-do Dubliner relocated to a rough-edged boys’ school when his parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) hit the financial skids, decides music is the way to the heart of Raphina (Lucy Boynton) — a preternaturally cool teen with a fearsome Pat Benatar perm and a dream of fashion modeling in London. The year is 1985, and Conor is in thrall to Duran Duran’s louche “Rio” video; with the help of fellow school misfits, including rabbit-fixated multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) and aspiring businessman Darren (Ben Carolan), he cobbles together the eponymous tribute band Sing Street. Shortly afterward, however, they realize that performing original material is the way forward. Soon, Conor and Eamon are cooking up such catchy New Romantic-style nuggets (courtesy, in fact, of Carney and erstwhile Danny Wilson frontman Gary Clark) as “The Riddle of the Model.” Raphina, enlisted as the star of the song’s hilariously lo-fi video, is halfway impressed.

As in “Once” and “Begin Again,” “Sing Street’s” songs don’t merely score or articulate dramatic events; they’re dramatic events in themselves, often shown in an array of compositional stages that mark the shifting and strengthening nature of the relationships between those by whom, and to whom, they’re performed. (“Can a Song Save Your Life?,” the original title of “Begin Again,” could as easily apply here.)

Meanwhile, Carney and Clark have evident fun scrolling through a selection of musical styles, registers and tempos, as the boys bend to passing trends with the short-term susceptibility of, well, teenagers. (Costume designer Tiziana Corvisieri wittily charts their accelerated evolution with dead-on approximations of mid-’80s MTV chic — as filtered through the restrictions of economic depression and parent-forced compromise.) The film’s chief implausibility, and it’s hardly a trying one, is that they sound equally polished on the clattering new-wave jam “Drive It Like You Stole It” and the MOR ballad “On My Way to Find You.”

Where “Sing Street” differs from its predecessors is that it’s expressly a love story, and not one between musicians: The ebb and flow of creative collaboration is secondary here to the more conventional push-pull of boy-meets-girl drama. (Conor’s bandmates come into minimal focus; in a misjudged detail, the film winkingly lampshades the token nature of the group’s one black member, only to render his character entirely dispensable thereafter.) As such, this isn’t Carney’s most soulful or inventive film, though the puppy-love in question is vastly appealing. A former professional boy soprano here making his screen debut, the delightful Walsh-Peelo carries the film with plucky, unaffected aplomb, while there’s enough sincere, oddball chemistry between him and Boynton (a lively British outlier in the pic’s Irish sea, albeit with a persuasive Dublin accent) to sustain the film’s risky climactic dive into high-key romanticism.

Still, the truest and most tearduct-tugging relationship here is that between Conor and his lank-haired college-dropout brother, played with spaced-out warmth and wistful good humor by the ever-likeable Reynor: A closing-credits dedication “for brothers everywhere” is a sentimental gesture that feels fairly earned.

Technical credits, if not serving the film with great aesthetic ingenuity, are carefully aligned to evoke the pockmarked, stonewashed appearance of an Ireland blanketed in poverty during the 1980s; Yaron Orbach’s lensing cleverly toggles pavement-level grit with the fluorescent aspirational flash of the era’s music videos. It nevertheless goes without saying that sound trumps vision on this project: Kieran Lynch’s musical production is top-notch and thumpingly in-period, though not so crisp as to undermine the boys’ fledgling authenticity.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Sing Street’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 24, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: <strong>105 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Ireland-U,K.-U.S.) A Weinstein Company presentation of a Likely Story, Filmwave, Distressed Films, Cosmo Films production in association with Merced Media, Palmstar Media Capital. Produced by Anthony Bregman, Martina Niland, John Carney. Executive producers, Kevin Frakes, Raj Brinder Singh, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Co-producers, Paul Trijbits, Christian Grass.
  • Crew: Directed, written by John Carney. Story, Carney, Simon Carmody. Camera (color, widescreen), Yaron Orbach; editors, Andrew Marcus, Julian Ulrichs; music, Carney, Gary Clark; music supervisor, Becky Betham; production designer, Alan MacDonald; art director, Riad Karim; set decorator, Tamara Conboy; costume designer, Tiziana Corvisieri; sound (Dolby Digital), Robert Flanagan; supervising sound editors, Niall Brady, Michelle Fingleton; re-recording mixer, Ken Galvin; visual effects supervisor, Ed Bruce; visual effects, Screen Scene; stunt coordinator, Donal O'Farrell; line producer, Jo Homewood; associate producers, Chelsey Pinke, Mary-Claire White, Peter Cron; assistant director, Jules Benoiton; casting, Louise Kiely.
  • With: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Mark McKenna, Kelly Thornton, Ian Kenny, Ben Carolan, Percy Chamburuka, Karl Rice, Conor Hamilton, Don Wycherley, Lydia McGuinness.