Sing Street is a love-letter to 1980s pop music and to all those kids who form a band to express themselves and get the girl. It will be adored not just by those who grew up in the ‘80s, but also by today’s teenagers, who might even be inspired to form their own bands.
Irish writer-director John Carney’s film is funny, warm and truthful in its depiction of schoolkids getting a band together, finding a bit of harmony and confidence amidst the chaos of their lives. He is particularly good at showing his young band crafting their original songs, at first awkwardly, and then with growing belief. They do not suddenly blossom, Hollywood-style; they mix and match music, clothes and make-up, unafraid to look stupid. As the singer’s brother says: ‘rock’n’roll is a risk. You risk ridicule’.
In 1985 Dublin fresh-faced 15 year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) finds himself transferred from private school to Synge Street, a free Christian Brothers school, because his family needs to save money. He is bemused by the violent anarchy that reigns there, but refuses to be cowed by a skinhead bully or by Brother Baxter, who takes exception to his brown shoes and effete ways (‘act manly!’).
Conor escapes through music – writing songs on his guitar and watching Top of the Pops. His family watch the programme religiously, enjoying the likes of Duran Duran’s exotic video to Girls on Film. As Conor’s dope-smoking older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) comments: ‘what tyranny could stand up to that?’
When Conor sees the beautiful and mysterious Raphina (Lucy Boynton) outside school, he is smitten. ‘Do you want to be in a video?’ he asks her, ‘for my band’. She asks him to sing a bit of A-ha to prove he’s a singer, which he just about manages. She says yes, so now Conor has a week to form a band.
The ensuing scenes of recruitment and rehearsal are hilarious and charming. The actors in the band are all unaffected newcomers who, crucially, look like 15 year olds, rather than twenty-somethings playing teenagers. Guitarist Eamon (Mark McKenna), a rabbit-loving multi-instrumentalist, has all the equipment they need in his front room. Their keyboardist has musical kudos because he’s one of the few ‘coloured lads’ in Dublin. A small but powerful rhythm section completes Conors’ ‘Futurist Band.’ They call themselves Sing Street, having rejected The Rabbits and La Vie.
After filming the gloriously daft video for their song Dangerous Eyes, which recalls the DIY magic in Son of Rambow, Conor is inspired to write more songs about his girl, which he tapes and puts through her letter-box – courtship by cassette.
But she has plans to become a model in England and seems to have a boyfriend. Will Conor get the girl? He is given hope by Brendan, who explains matter-of-factly that ‘no woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins’.
Sing Street is a hugely enjoyable return to the music and fashion of the ‘80s that avoids easy nostalgia by being both gritty and romantic. In one scene Carney gives us a taste of how Hollywood might have done it; he brings to life Conor’s imagined technicolour video for a new song: the band play a Back to the Future type Prom gig wearing burgundy tuxes and his parents are happy together again, his brother James Dean-cool. But then it’s over and we’re back in the grey school hall, with a few extras mooching about.
Carney has given us back our old Top of the Pops dream, conjuring shiver-giving original songs that cleverly avoid pastiche. He has also given us a soaring finale that evokes the spirit of James Joyce.