As “Sing Street” opens, 15 year old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) slumps on his bed with an acoustic guitar, taking insults being exchanged between his mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and father (Aidan Gillen) arguing on the opposite side of his wall and instantaneously transforming them into song lyrics. It’s a swift evocation of how Conor makes music to cope with the adolescent pains of his Dublin teenage experience. And he will really need to make music when his mom and dad explain that to necessarily cut family costs, Conor is being transferred to a cheaper Christian Brothers school, where he promptly runs afoul of both the requisite bully (Ben Carolan) and the autocratic principal (Don Wycherley). But he also makes good by meeting cute with Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an aspiring 16 year old model, whose number he scores by asking her if she wants to star in his band’s music video. Of course, he doesn’t have a band, but this will engender the perfect excuse to start one, christened Sing Street in (non) tribute to their school, Synge Street.
The film is set in 1985, the height of MTV and the music video, and it is in the image of the music video that writer/director John Carney fashions his sentimental opus. If Carney opted for vérité in his intimate semi-musical “Once” (2007) to mirror its lo-fi, busker ethos, he renders “Sing Street” in the fantastical, commercially slick aesthetic of the music video. And not just in the fantasy sequences where the idea of what Conor wants for his videos improbably comes to life, but the full scope of the film’s narrative, where the band leader imagines everyone as being support to his own main story.
That includes Raphina, who is merely Conor’s muse and then the girl he wants to save from her obligatory overbearing boyfriend and dashed dreams, though, to be fair, Carney’s screenplay, while not giving her dimension, per se, still affords her decision making rights. It also includes Conor’s band, most of which remains explicitly on the periphery, like his guitarist without mystique. That’s Eamon (Mark McKenna), who mostly exists as a conspirator whenever Conor feels the blues and wants to pen another song, never mind the Token Black Keyboardist (Percy Chamburuka), who gets one funny line and then recedes from he limelight. All these people are here chiefly to aid Conor’s journey, which is not about overcoming grand dramatic obstacles so much as becoming more rooted in his sense of self. While a climactic showdown with the bully might have been inevitable in another movie, here it just deliberately evaporates as Conor assumes a force field of confidence.
If Carney truly drills down on any character, it is Conor’s older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), a college dropout still living at home, directionless aside from his self-appointed position as mentor to his little bro. He lectures Conor on musical theory and dispenses romantic advice on how to get the girl, and both these ideas – music and love – dovetail nicely with the movie’s hoary if nevertheless affecting message of staying true to one’s self. When Conor plays his band’s first recording, a Duran Duran cover, Brendan can barely mask his rage, arguing that to win Raphina’s heart, Conor needs to be who he is and that he will never be who he is by playing someone else’s songs. So, Conor concocts his own tunes, none of which, despite being generally era-appropriate, come anywhere near the melodic mountaintop of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s work in “Once”, though still effectively underline their main character’s evolving emotions.
That idea of staying true one’s self is also revealed as Brendan’s foremost failure, evinced in a monologue that Reynor brings to a fiery pitch, roaring “I was a lion!” with such ferocity it momentarily stops the movie in its tracks. He was a lion, until he let the life he wanted slip away. It’s a hallmark of the film, where pangs of melancholy suddenly crop up, almost as if these are moments of reality that even Conor can’t prevent from interfering in his musical daydream. And it’s also these moments where Conor is made to see a potential life path - Adolescence to Rootless Young Adulthood to Adulthood Misery - that he wishes to avoid.
When he’s asked what kind of music he likes, Conor replies: “I’m a futurist. No nostalgia.” He says this not because the film is poking fun at its own nostalgic underpinnings, but because that’s what Conor is looking toward as he sculpts his band – the future. And that idea is brought home in a pragmatically absurd but emotionally spot on conclusion that reminds us we simply have to cross the next horizon in front of us regardless of what may or may not wait on the other side. It feels just like the end to an inspirational music video.