A famed philosopher of the MTV age once sang “video killed the radio star,” and John Carney’s Sing Street is a tribute to that unequivocal truth. Certainly, it’s what some might call a return to form for the director, landing closer to his previous work in Once, and staging the way for some wonderfully organic musical numbers set against the backdrop of Dublin circa 1985. In this respect, it’s another highly personal entry, and Carney does well to grab hold of the coming-of-age narrative.
Our main point of interest is Conor, a lad thrown into a new school of hellish proportions and of course, there’s a girl, and he wants to get to know said girl. What follows soon thereafter is the inception of an entire band, the eponymous Sing Street. So in essence, the band forms so he can get the girl. It’s that simple and it works…sort of.
By all accounts, she’s an untouchable goddess, a year older than him, with a mature boyfriend and aspirations of modeling in England. And yet Raphina deigns to stoop to their level and take part in their first foray into music video-making. It’s in such moments that the film unabashedly hoists up its 80s sensibilities, suggesting Carney’s own personal affection for that day and age. Because amidst all the god-awful make-up, outrageous costumes and mimicry of the new wave scene, there’s a sense of amusement. Since every boy, at one time or another, has gone through these different phases and stages, like a sponge soaking up all conceivable inspirations. In this case, Conor’s older brother Brendan becomes his pontificating Buddha of rock n’ roll. His influences run the gamut from Duran Duran to the Cure and most definitely a little David Bowie.
But his band also develops into a wonderfully liberating beast to combat the furies of the world. Conor is consumed by grand dreams of Back to the Future themed prom nights at an American-style high school. Meanwhile, his parents are continually squabbling at home and his dream girl leaves for London without a word of goodbye. But he uses his new found outlet paired with the guidance of his brother to turn his stray thoughts and accumulating angst into something of true substance. Namely, Conor and the versatile Eamon, have a bit of a Lennon-McCartney partnership going, as far as creative genius, proceeding to run with each spark of an idea that strikes. In fact, with all the boys, there’s a matter-of-fact gravity to it all, because forming a band is a serious business — it’s a concerted effort not to succumb to the grisly fate of yet another gutted cover band.
Like any formative tale about young men and women, Sing Street suggests the vital importance of personal identity and chasing after dreams in particular. You see it with Conor as he constantly dons new facades, not simply in a search for greater artistic expression, but personal freedom.
But where he breaks with his big brother, is what he actually does with the inspiration that has been passed down to him from the rock gods. He uses its whole potential as a gateway to the way of life that he desires — making the most of the opportunities that are afforded him — even if they are a long shot. As the movie progresses Raphina looks younger and younger, and it hardly seems by accident. Over time, she sheds layer after layer of makeup and manicuring to reveal a bit more of herself, until the tipping point where all her dreams come cascading down, and she has nowhere to hide. In fact, in these more fragile moments, Lucy Boynton is reminiscent of a young Felicity Jones.
Admittedly “Sing Street” has a ludicrous ending and there are moments that it tilts towards the plastic production values of “Begin Again” rather than the sincerity of Once, but that’s a lot of what the 80s feels like. It’s fake. It’s this construction projected up on a screen. And that’s precisely what this film is saluting and celebrating, but that’s only the half of it. Raphina rightfully points out you can never do art half way. That’s what rock n’ roll is in a sense. It’s audacious exploration, risk taking and a bit of foolishness in the name of chasing your dreams, usually involving a girl. Thus, the film is not wholly original, even for Carney, who has drawn from the same well three times over, but like any artist, he’s able to discover fresh inspiration from old cisterns. After all, every member of humanity is in one way another a broken work of art, beautifully complicated, and that’s worth returning to again and again.