Like the best of John Hughes and the most confident of modern musicals, Sing Street is addictive and rousing. The newly minted high school band at its center may have dreams beyond their Dublin suburbs, but the film only yourns for the audience’s toes to be tapping.
Along the course of Sing Street, the central teen’s musical tastes develop from exposure to the various subgenres present during its particular 1985 setting. Naturally, his style changes abruptly to incorporate swabs of makeup, bleached patches of hair, and a nuked mane to mimic the influence of Duran Duran and The Cure on his musical infancy. The specificity lent to the film by the exact moment in (especially British) music actually goes to underscore the timelessness of the film and the transforming power of the artform.
That Sing Street can organically chart these seismic shifts happening daily to our hero Conor (a charming and genuine Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) through the lens of music is to be somewhat expected coming from director John Carney. His humanistic approach to character and connection through music have worked previously in Once and Begin Again, with this effort being the best among them. Carney’s characters have always defined themselves through music, but never has he shown more depth to that identification. Like our constantly evolving taste in music and the shifting landscape of popular music, our identities are diverse and mutable, something entirely different from one day to the next.
Teen years are therefore the perfect ground for embodying that relationship, the time when our sense of self is most in flux and we’re most tied to the music filling our world. Sing Street is smart to not approach its youthful struggles with even a whiff of judgment or cynicism. Much like his Carney’s previous efforts, the film wears its heart on its sleeve without becoming cloying or trite over Conor’s lovelorn attempts to woo the cool Raphina (Lucy Boynton). No, this love story is as modestly pure and absorbing as the pop hits that blare on the soundtrack.
The film is engaging enough on its own merits, but it can’t be as rousing as it quickly becomes without the necessity of truly catchy tunes – and it doesn’t disappoint. The familiarity in their rhythms and melodies are true to Conor’s loving rip-off of the bands inspiring him, but are each fresh and radio friendly. From the sweetly soaring “Up” to the anthemic “Brown Shoes”, even the crabbiest viewer is going to be won over by the winning songs (and surely there’s an Oscar nominee in here, somewhere). If “Drive It Like You Stole It” isn’t your song of the summer, you’re not doing it right.
While the ensemble of young actors gets small moments to charm without fail, the primary focus is drawn to Conor’s struggle to get the girl and deal with his disintegrating family unit (even the greatest bands are all about the lead singer, after all). The familiar story still engages thanks to the songs, each drawn from Conor’s not always requited longings for the typically elusive Raphina. There is much of Sing Street that we have seen done before and often, and occasionally very well – but it remains a cut above because of Carney’s growing directorial abilities and unmanipulative sincerity. This film is a particular leap forward in his control of the film’s compassion and heart to thrust the story along without the meandering malaise of Begin Again.
Consider it my early fan favorite of the summer. There is a potential cult classic here, or if the word of mouth continues to grow, an outright box office hit. With no cutesy preciousness of youth or cynical adult judgment to sour the proceedings, Street is the kind of joyous experience for any optimistic audience. Its pitfalls come when it gets forced into plotting, with Jack Reynor’s older brother an increasingly superfluous and flat device to push Conor along. The family dynamics never pay off like the love story or the bullying, but maybe they needed their own song? Rest assured that will show up in the likely stage adaptation.
Like that great album you spend an entire summer listening to (maybe skipping that one track every now and again), Sing Street is the best type of pop confection: one that gets into your heart on first listen and takes its hold until you keep coming back again and again.