Is there anyone better at creating modern musicals than Dublin-born writer/director John Carney? Eschewing the gaudy razzle-dazzle favored by Rob Marshall and his overproduced hits like Chicago, Nine and Into the Woods, Carney’s movies aren’t big-budget spectacles, but what his pictures lack in visual polish, they more than make up for with heart and soul. Sure, he may have followed up his bewitching breakthrough, 2007’s Once, with 2013’s lesser effort, Begin Again, choosing to work with marquee names like Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, rather than real-life musicians like Glen Hansard (frontman of Irish band the Frames) and Markéta Irglová, acting novices who stole our hearts in the earlier picture—but he still managed to keep the beat.
With his latest, Sing Street, Carney may be mining his earliest hit, giving us a sort of junior edition of Once, populated once again by fresh-faced newcomers, but his teenaged protagonists are no less appealing than Hansard and Irglová—even if their songs (co-written by Carney and Gary Clark) don’t have quite the originality or pop of, say, “Falling Slowly.” But then, that composition deservedly won Hansard and Irglová an Oscar, while Sing Street’s nascent musicians are only just beginning to spread their wings during after-school jam sessions that prove, once again, that there’s no one better than Carney in portraying believable, joyfully electric acts of spontaneous song creation.
Like Once, the film takes place in Dublin, but this one’s a period piece. The year is 1985, and Conor (former professional soprano Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, making his screen debut) isn’t used to being poor, unlike Hansard’s street busker. However, his parents (Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) have begun feeling the economic pinch and are forced to transfer the high schooler from a private academy into the rough ’n’ tumble Synge Street Christian Brothers School. Needless to say, this outsider’s first day does not go well.
Nevertheless, he looks forward to his evening at home, where dinner is followed by a viewing of musical variety show Top of the Pops. Conor, his mom and his older stoner brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), disrupt the essay-writing of younger sibling Ann (Kelly Thornton) as they plop down on the couch, entranced by the music video for Duran Duran’s “Rio.” Still at the dinner table, Conor’s dad scoffs at the notion of this Brit-pop band being a modern equivalent of the Beatles. But as Conor’s eyes fix on the bikini-clad women surrounding Simon Le Bon and John Taylor, a seed is planted.
When he notices a pretty 16-year-old sitting on the steps of a girls’ home not far from Synge Street, 15-year-old Conor lies to the slightly older beauty, telling her that he’s in a band—and that he wants to cast her in their music video. Putting him on the spot, Raphina (Lucy Boynton, young Beatrix in 2006’s Miss Potter) demands that he sing for her. Conor barely croaks a few words of A-ha’s “Take On Me” before the would-be model with the Pat Benatar ’do jots down her digits for our plucky hero. As he triumphantly walks away from his crush, the slip of paper containing her number clutched tightly in his hand, Conor approaches Darren (Ben Carolan), the scrawny ginger who’s become his first friend at school. “We need to start a band,” he tells the business-minded boy, who offers to be the hypothetical group’s manager.
Cue a montage as the boys assemble a “futurist band” made up of other outcast classmates. Carney isn’t reinventing the wheel here—and he barely sketches in the other band members. But then, at its core, Sing Street (also the name the lads choose for their group) is a sweet-natured story of young love.
Conor is advised by Brendan that being in a cover band won’t win him any girls, so the besotted boy gets to work with multiple instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna), Lennon to Conor’s McCartney, on writing his first song: “The Riddle of the Model.” Flattered, Raphina agrees to appear in Sing Street’s music video, an amateur production that cracks the riddle of Raphina as she shows her spirited generosity and can-do attitude, not only becoming the fledgling band’s on-camera object of desire, but also their makeup artist and costume designer.
“Let’s put on a show!” is a trope as old as the cinema itself, and if spending two hours with earnest young upstarts making music together sounds like too much of a sugar high, know that Carney is canny enough to orchestrate his closing scene as storm clouds loom. His kids may be all right now, but they’re about to enter a larger world. Still, they’re teenagers, and Carney allows them their hopes and dreams, sending them (and us) out on a crescendo of romantic lyricism, rather than concluding on Once’s more melancholic note. And while the final chord Carney strikes may not match his earlier picture for kitchen-sink realism, it’s absolutely right for his latest charmer.
Sing Street ***1/2
Starring Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Mark McKenna, Kelly Thornton, Ian Kenny, Ben Carolan, Percy Chamburuka, Karl Rice, Conor Hamilton, Don Wycherley and Lydia McGuinness. Written and directed by John Carney. At Kendall Square.