Sing Street (2016, dir. John Carney)
Conor Lawlor is fifteen years old and, with his two siblings, stuck in the middle of his parents’ deteriorating ends up at Synge Street, a free state school run by the Christian Brothers. The school is managed chaos, full of delinquent young men and priests who brutalize their students. Conor meets Raphina, a girl who lives across the street from the school and after seeing a Duran Duran music video for the first time decides he wants to form a band. The group is assembled from the boys he attends school. At the same time, his older brother begins educating Conor on various bands of the day (The Cure, Spandau Ballet), and slowly Conor develops his own sense of songwriting. The endeavor awakens a love of songwriting in him, and the band becomes more than just something to impress a girl, and their relationship becomes more than merely a crush.
By the mid-1980s due to economic stresses, young Irish were immigrating to London in significant numbers. Early in Sing Street, we see a news report covering this and mentioning the fact that many of this young people arrived with little to no money and quickly ended up on the ferry back to Ireland. Conor’s parents’ problems come from both a marriage that is drained of love and the economics issues that have come up. The Catholic Church also looms as an institution that not only oppresses Conor but even his parents. At one point his older brother says, “Two Catholics in a rented flat with a screaming baby who just got married because they wanted to have sex. They didn’t even love each other.” So while the tone of the film is generally upbeat, there is an honesty in the events unfolding.
The style of humor in Sing Street is a mix of dry and playful. I was reminded of the great recent Irish sitcom Moone Boy during a lot of the interactions between the boys in the band. There’s this sense of heightened wit among the children where they come across as wise beyond their years. Other moments have the feel of a Wes Anderson film like Rushmore or Bottle Rocket, that mix of staged scenes and rough energy. The side characters never overtake the main story but are painted with just the right full broad strokes that we have a definitive sense of who they are without the film having to overtly explain.
The music, written by Gary Clark a veteran of the music industry in the 1980s who still writes and produces has a very genuine feel. Each song is directly mimicking a particular band’s style and reflects exactly how a young songwriter would operate, first simulating the music they like as they develop their own sensibilities. I was born in 1981 so much of the music featured in the film I don’t necessarily look back with nostalgia. I certainly enjoy the lighter pop of that era, despite my dark tastes in nearly all other media, and I found the music well done.
Sing Street is a feel good coming of age movie, and I approach this type of film with a lot of trepidation. So often these films depend on a false sense of emotion. They use lazy shorthand to get across the feelings they want to evoke in the audience. Sing Street always manages to keep itself grounded and never tread into those maudlin spaces. Even the film’s “happy ending” leaves the real conclusion for these characters open. The message is that we don’t know what happens when we risk for those higher aspirations, but the risk itself is a victory.