Film

‘Sing Street’ Is The Joyous Teen Musical Fantasy You Need Right Now

Teens start bands as escape routes… or at least to get laid.

While today’s lumbering blockbusters aim to dazzle audiences with visual bombast, the most intensely joyous movie special effect is still the human body performing and moving to music. And movie musicals often focus on teenagers because there’s drama in watching them use music to magically transcend their real social predicaments.

Stuck in inner-city ghettos, banal suburbs and dead-end rural towns, teenagers are governed by small-minded parents and teachers, and assailed by poverty, abuse, bullying, family breakdown and the general humiliating bullshit of everyday life. They start bands as escape routes… or at least to get laid.

#teenz

These are the impulses that motivate the Mexican teens of We Are Mari Pepa, Kiwi metalheads in Deathgasm! and Swedish punk grrrls in We Are The Best! And on the small screen, there’s Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming The Get Down, Pugwall and his Orange Organics, and Degrassi’s beloved tryhards, the Zit Remedy. (“Joey, if this video doesn’t impress Caitlin, nothing will!”)

In Sing Street, Irish writer-director John Carney (Once, Begin Again) brings this tried-and-true formula to 1980s Dublin. Because of this setting, it’s been compared to Alan Parker’s The Commitments, but it’s nowhere near as gritty. Instead, this absolutely delightful film deals in wish fulfilment, celebrating the way we use music to express intense emotions, reach out to others and experiment with who we want to be.

Striving To Be Sophisticated

We meet 15-year-old Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) idly strumming a guitar in his bedroom, setting his parents’ marital strife to music (“If I didn’t share a mortgage, I would leave you…”). Ireland’s struggling economy has been brutal on the middle-class Lalors, and to economise, Conor’s dad (Aidan Gillen) is pulling him out of his posh Jesuit school. Now he has to go to Synge Street, a tough Christian Brothers school overseen by creepy Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley).

Newcomer Walsh-Peelo manages to balance diffidence and self-assurance as Conor, the type of earnest, rosy-cheeked youth who’s a magnet to bullies like Barry (Ian Kenny). But he quickly makes a friend in entrepreneurial little redhead Darren (Ben Carolan), and he’s not afraid to approach Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a mysterious cool girl he spots standing opposite the school. When she says she’s a model, Conor opportunistically invites her to be in his band’s video.

Of course, now he has to form a band. In this project, Conor is aided not just by Darren – who recruits a willing crew of fellow students, led by bespectacled multi-instrumentalist and rabbit fancier Eamon (Mark McKenna) – but also by the impeccable taste of his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), a lank-haired stoner and college dropout.

What makes both Sing Street the band and Sing Street the film so intensely adorable is that Conor and his mates possess no native cool. They seem achingly young as they ape the musicians Brendan is introducing to Conor, shifting their sound and their style through a process of trial and error that means any debut album of theirs would sound like a Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation.

As Conor’s musical knowledge expands, costume designer Tiziana Corvisieri has as much fun with his outfits as Carney and Gary Clark do with his original songs. Because Brendan is into Duran Duran, Conor writes a cringey New Romantic ode to Raphina, ‘The Riddle of the Model’ (complete with orientalist keyboard sting). He tries a Flock of Seagulls-esque bleached patch in his hair, followed by a Robert Smith shag and greatcoat as he lifts the jangly guitars and romantic synths in ‘A Beautiful Sea’ straight from The Cure. Meanwhile, ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ is shamelessly based on the blue-eyed soul of Hall and Oates’ ‘Maneater’.

I enjoyed the gentleness with which this film suggests that chasing sophistication might be a hiding to nothing. Raphina turns out to be as naïve as Conor, in her way; and Conor’s mum (Maria Doyle Kennedy) yearns to be romanced in a way her sarcastic, skivvy-wearing husband seems oblivious to. Even Brendan, whose critical judgment guides his little brother, seems lost and cynical, unable to harness his charisma for his own purposes.

Sailing Off Into Fantasy

What makes music wonderful is that it takes us away from our crappy everyday lives into a fantasy space filled with joy. It’s no coincidence that the movie musical genre honed its pleasure-machinery during the Depression and World War II. Sing Street is grounded in the textures of kitchen-sink realism, but it’s soon obvious that Carney isn’t interested in peddling grim shit.

Issues including drug and alcohol dependency, domestic violence, paedophilia, racism and homophobia are briefly flagged, but the film refuses to dwell on them. It isn’t even really interested in the creative tensions between the band members, or whether Sing Street will ever ‘make it’ in the professional music industry.

It’s more important to Carney to explore the role music plays in our connections with others and our fantasies about ourselves. Purists may also be annoyed that the film’s grab-bag of musical references isn’t chronologically faithful to its 1985 setting, but Carney is more alert to the emotional resonances of making and listening to music. As in his previous films Once and Begin Again, he dramatises composition in montages that show how the construction of a song is a collaborative performance that has powerful effects on the performers and the audience.

This works beautifully in my personal favourite song, the euphoric ‘Up’, which shifts seamlessly from a living-room jam session – the camera panning to show each instrumentalist joining in – to a ride through Dublin’s streets. Later, when Conor thinks he’s lost Raphina, he performs a sad solo reprise of the song.

Because Conor records each new song on tape as a love token to Raphina, we also see her listening to them and being gradually won over. Conor isn’t really displaying a ‘mature’ self-confidence or sexuality; rather, Raphina basks in the emotional intimacy of being addressed in song. This is particularly clear in the montage featuring the ballad ‘To Find You’. Haven’t you had that same fantasy that your favourite musician is singing directly to you?

For Conor, the fantasy isn’t just about being with Raphina, but also about somehow making his family happy again. His vision for the ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ video is of a 1950s prom, like in Back to the Future, at which his parents and Brendan happily join in the dance. It’s all the more bittersweet when Conor’s whirling dance floor dissolves into a desultory few schoolgirls bobbing awkwardly up and down to the music.

Boy-gets-girl, mean-adult-gets-defeated, band-has-its-best-gig-ever and everyone-is-happy – wish fulfilment is fundamental to the movie musical genre, which is a completely confected pleasure rather than a slice of authentic experience. Still, something of the real world hovers around Sing Street in a way that feels wistful: as if the characters can recognise they’re fantasising but have made a defiant decision to go with it, as if they can outrun disappointment.

Ultimately, this coexistence of joyful fantasy and dispiriting reality is what lifts Sing Street above the cheesiness of its premise. As Raphina tells Conor, “You’re not happy being sad. That’s what love is – happy/sad.”

Sing Street is out now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.