The boy in Sing Street doesn’t seem like anything special, not at first. It’s his first day at a new school, forced to switch in the middle of the year because his parents are trying to save money. He’s already had a run-in with the school bully, and it’s easy to imagine what his future will hold. He’ll keep his head down and spend the rest of high school (and maybe his life) trying not to be noticed. But then the kid surprises you: After school, he notices the beautiful girl who hangs out on her doorstep, waiting to be approached by the young boys so she can reject them. Instead of resigning himself to admiring her from afar, he walks across the street and gets her phone number. This kid has special powers.
Sing Street is a superhero origin story, except its hero is a rock star. The film’s basic plot – a guy starts a band to impress a girl – is an impossibly old cliché, but rock and roll is built on clichés, so why should we complain? Particularly when the boy is winningly earnest and the girl has that perfectly fragile kind of beauty. Before Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) approaches Raphina (Lucy Boynton) on those steps, he has just watched his first music video on television, so when he learns she is a model, he asks her to star in his music video, and, astoundingly, she agrees. All he has to do is form a band, write a song, and come up with an idea for a video.
Set in 1985 on the streets of Dublin, Sing Street follows the evolution of Conor and his band up until their first gig at his school. In its portrayal of music as an escape from working-class strife, it owes much to The Commitments, as well as a dozen other rock stories. But Carney has a nose for reality, employing the same hand-held camera and naturalistic style that he employed on previous musicals Once and Begin Again to make the clichés feel richer and more authentic.
It’s really a two-person show, as the boys in the band never get much characterization beyond a few token quirks. The lead guitar player has pet rabbits. The bass player refuses to wear the make-up that bands in the eighties required. The keyboard player is black, and the manager is small. If you think Sing Street will be about the chemistry of the band, you don’t know Carney, who prefers to examine the one-on-one connection. Once and Begin Again depicted platonic relationships between two adults who choose the simple but rich pleasures of making music together over romantic entanglements. The tension over the possibility of romance was crucial to those two films, and it’s missed in Sing Street.
Instead, Carney rests everything on love. While Sing Street lacks the rich, adult complications of Carney’s previous work, it makes up for it with a keen understanding of fantasy. Consider a scene in which Conor and his band are shooting a new video in the school gymnasium. He envisions it as an American prom, and as his band plays, Carney shoots it as Conor sees it, complete with Raphina gliding onto the dance floor with stars in her eyes for the lead singer. Later in the film, when the band plays an actual dance in that space, Carney nearly mimics the camera angles and mood of that earlier scene, evoking the power of a fantasy come true.
Still, a musical – even a more realistic, neo-musical like this one – is only as good as it songs. Luckily, Sing Street comes pre-packaged with a track list of killer New Wave classics from Duran Duran, The Cure, and others. Carney hired veteran pop musician Gary Clark to collaborate with him on an album’s worth of new tracks, several of them just as good as the hits from that era. In the end, they prove that a good song, like a good story, doesn’t need to be new. It just needs to be sung with feeling.
My Rating: See it in the Theater