SING STREET (Movie Review)

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***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
for thematic elements including strong language, some bullying behavior, a brief sexually suggestive image, drug material, and teen smoking
Released: April 15, 2016
 limited; May 13 expands
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: John Carney
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Mark McKenna, Ian Kenny, Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy

Sing Street is a movie for anyone who’s ever been in high school and dreamed. Dreamed big. And had a big crush to go with it. A dream that not only envisioned you becoming famous, but would be sealed by you and the person you had that big crush on falling in love. In other words, Sing Street is pretty much for everybody.

From writer/director John Carney, an auteur of “breakout singer/songwriter” movies like Once and Begin Again, this story may be set in mid-1980s Dublin (and capture that time and place perfectly) but it’s both cross-generational and universal. It’s the fantasy of every person who’s ever been a teenager, even for those who’ve never had serious musical talent (like me), and told at the dawn of the music video era. The Broadway version of this is inevitable.

Who couldn’t help dreaming at some point of what it would be like to have a hit record, your peers cheering you on, and the person you’ve fallen for (who’s out of your league) actually returning your feelings. Sing Street is basically that fantasy, or the pre-fame beginnings of that fantasy, but one grounded in the authentic sentiments that drive that fantasy. The sentiments of trying to figure out who you are, your place in this world, if that place can reach beyond the limitations of where you’re from, expressing that true self, and doing it all with passion. And courage.

Things aren’t going well at home for Conor, a 15-year-old middle child whose been shuttled to a cheaper all-boys Catholic school because his blue collar parents are struggling financially (and relationally). As the new kid, he’s an easy target for both the school bully and the strict priest headmaster. But when a 16-year-old would-be model at the Girls boarding house across the street catches his eye, Conor looks to form a band to impress her.

In short order, Conor’s new friend Darren connects him with Eamon, a guy who can play anything but isn’t playing for anyone. A motley crew of misfit music novices are rounded up in short order, and bam, suddenly Conor has a band. Before you know it, he and Eamon have written a catchy song with meaningful lyrics and, with Darren running the VHS camcorder, they’re ready to produce their first low-rent music video. That is Conor’s in with Raphina (yes, the girl of his dreams even has a magical name), who he asks to be the model in their video.

To take this movie at face value, you’d think that making great music is a fairly quick and straightforward process if you’ve remotely got the knack for it. Suffice it to say, Sing Street isn’t really about the struggle of writing good songs or growing as musicians. Rather, it’s about the struggle from which great music is born: to overcome life’s obstacles, its naysayers, and to express the love (and heartbreak) that consumes you.

An 80s music soundtrack fuels the journey, going back-and-forth between classic hits and Sing Street originals. As the band takes inspiration from The Clash, The Cure, and Duran Duran (and then changes its look according to each new muse), Conor and Eamon’s songwriting follows suit. Yet their singles aren’t carbon copies of more popular ones, merely tweaked to a slightly different key. No, they’re truly original and personal works of their own. Each track emerges from the current state of Conor’s pursuit of Raphina, and collectively, they magnify the film’s wide ranging emotional power.

As that music’s inspiration, actress Lucy Boynton is the film’s heart-pounding core. Her Raphina is the anti-Yoko, empowering Conor to find his voice (not only through her beauty and enigmatic charisma, but also her clear belief in him). She is a force that unites the band rather than tearing it apart. And along with being a knockout (who still looks great in 80s hair, clothes, and jewelry), Boynton gives Raphina the film its biggest emotional journey, one with as much self-doubt and obstacles as Conor’s but masked (out of necessity and survival) with a slightly tougher surface – yet Boynton allows us to see her fragile moments too. They’re the film’s most moving.

Closely behind her is Conor’s other primary inspiration: his older brother Brendan, a deep thinker and dreamer whose anti-authoritarian streak has caused him to let his life go to pot (quite literally). Brendan’s the guy who knows music, not only the good from the “commercial” but how to articulate the difference between the two. Conor takes his long talks with his brother about music (and their home life) and actually does something with them. He turns them into the music that Brendan never did. And the beauty of it all is how that in turn inspires Brendan, rather than making him embittered. Jack Reynor makes a career-defining turn as Brendan (just as Boynton does with Raphina), giving dimension to a role that could so easily be stock. If it’s Raphina that gives Sing Street its heart, it’s Brendan that gives it its soul.

Yes, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is compelling, too, in his acting debut as Conor. We are as invested in his primary journey as we are Raphina’s and Brendan’s that support his. Conor’ coming of age, while following a familiar structure with recognizable beats, always feels organic, fresh, and revelatory. The remainder of the band largely provides comic relief, although Mark McKenna makes the most of his role as Eamon, the real musical talent of the group. His calm, cool, collaborating presence is Conor’s creative anchor, and gives expression to Conor’s soul-bearing words.

As a plot, Sing Street relies rather heavily on formula and convention, and even a few tired clichés (the main offender there being Conor’s main antagonists, from the merciless Catholic school headmaster with abusive and pedophilic streaks, to the school yard bully with his own back story and predictable arc). This isn’t a movie that sells itself on particularly high levels of suspense or unforeseen dramatic swings (the swings are there, mind you, but you’ve seen them before), but it’s a formula that Carney makes deeply personal.

Sing Street is a feel-good piece of wish fulfillment, yet one that feels credible, even possible. Possible enough to shake you out of and lift you up from whatever funk you’re in – whether momentary, or one that’s been lingering and oppressing – and make you believe in the power of dreams again. Not that they’re easy or even assured, but that they’re worth pursuing. And that the pursuit, not the compromise, is what gives life to Life.

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