Review: John Carney's Vibrant '80s Musical, 'Sing Street'

NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. Sing Street opens in DC on April 22nd.

Eight years after John Carney won the hearts of Sundance audiences with his Irish musical-romance, Onceand a couple of years after his less-successful but underrated Begin Again, he's back once again with another heart-swelling tale of songwriting love with Sing Street.  Seamlessly blending the band dynamics of The Commitments with the teen coming-of-age antics of We Are The Best!, the film is less romanticized than Carney's other films; the deeply rooted love is for the '80s pop and rock sounds of Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, and The Cure. Infused with the energy of the era and the kinetic performances of the young cast, Sing Street is guaranteed to get you out of your seat and dancing in the streets.

Don't think for a second that there isn't a love story, though. Want to know why most guys start rocks bands? To impress girls, that's why. And that's exactly why teenaged Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) gets the idea in his head, to win over the heart of the mysterious and mature Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who has hopes of leaving poor Dublin for a life in London. He asks her to be in his band's music video, which is great except there's no video and certainly no band. Inspired by his older brother, Brendan, (a shaggy and terrific Jack Reynor), a stoner and a Yoda of rock music, Conor creates a group called Sing Street, named after the strict Christian Brothers school he is forced to attend to help his parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) save money. With his rabbit-obsessed guitarist and co-writer Eamon (Mark McKenna), Doyle cobbles together a group of young misfits whose tastes change as quickly as their MTV-inspired wardrobe.

While Carney has always been able to knock out a memorable track or two in each of his films, the soundtracks for those are very good, he takes it to another level with Sing Street's infectious score. What's amazing about it is how catchy each track is, and how quickly we become invested in the band's success. Granted, their aspirations don't go far beyond impressing Raphina, but we want that for them more than anything. That romance is incredibly sweet and dreamy in the way most school-aged crushes are, but what has real impact is the relationship between Connor and his family. The harsh economic realities of Ireland in the '80s has hit his parents hard, and while they argue over everything Conor finds relief in his brother's sage (meaning stoned) advice about the connection between women and music. When Raphina drives off with an older, seemingly much cooler boy, Conor tells Brendan the guy listens to Phil Collins.  "He won't be a problem" he quickly retorts, giving his sibling the confidence boost to keep pursuing the woman of his dreams.

Carney strings together wonderful emotional beats like the notes in a perfectly-crafted song. Like his previous efforts, Carney has his artists performing everywhere and anywhere, using the most natural settings to capture an authentic feel. From a boys' messy bedroom to a grungy alleyway to a school gymnasium where the uproarious "Drive It Like You Stole It" rockets the film to another stratosphere.
To varying degrees all of Carney's films have had an aspect of wish fulfillment, but Sing Street is the most surreal by far, ending with the kind of spectacular romantic gesture that often defined movies of the time period. It's perfect for a film that is all about taking big risks, not only for the music but for love.

Rating: 4 out of 5