John Carney is an Irish filmmaker who had a breakout hit back in ’07 with a little independent movie called Once, chronicling the romance of an aspiring musical couple in Dublin. After a few noble misfires, including a Keira Knightley film called Begin Again, Carney has returned to his Dublin roots with his new film Sing Street, about a teenager starting a band in the 1980s, which serves as a loving tribute to that decade’s music and culture from a man who came of age during that time.
Conor, played with impressive assurance by newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, is a lonely 15-year-old whose parents’ money problems cause him to be transferred to a Catholic high school, where he is bullied by classmates and singled out for punishment by the creepy headmaster. Conor’s older brother, an advice-dispensing stoner played by Jack Reynor, teaches him some advanced musical tastes, and a TV appearance by Duran Duran opens his eyes to some new possibilities. But the real inspiration comes when he meets an older girl named Raphina, played by Lucy Boynton, living in a nearby group home. To impress Raphina, he puts together a band with the help of a pint-sized friend who agrees to be the manager, and a talented young guitarist played by Mark McKenna, who becomes co-writer of the group’s songs. Conor then recruits Raphina to be the star of the band’s first music video. She enjoys the attention, but has her heart set on going to London to be a model.
Sing Street, as it turns out, is not only a film about the 80s, but a clever imitation of an actual 1980s film. The teen romance with the troubled girl, the family quarrels at home, the older brother whose dreams of a musical career have vanished in a cloud of pot smoke, these are undeniably a bit standard. But the film excels in celebrating how creativity can help young people discover themselves. The amusing progression of Conor’s styles of hair and dress, depending on what groups he is influenced by at the moment, is a joy to behold. The boys become the coolest kids in school because they decide to be that, and they even resolve the problem of a persistent bully in an ingenious and nonviolent way. In addition, the Conor-Raphina romance transcends its predictability because of its touching, tentative quality and a genuine spark between Boynton and Walsh-Peelo.
The costumes and production design pretty much nail the 1980s. Conor’s songs were written by veteran Scottish musician Gary Clark, with help from Carney himself and a few others. The music is excellent, and the lyrics are just what a disaffected teen might have written, but you do have to suspend your disbelief that a high school band could sound this tight. That makes more emotional than literal sense, which is something you could say about Sing Street in general. It celebrates the joys of growing up New Wave, with the gentle humor of someone looking back from 30 years later.