In Sing Street, a sensitive kid named Connor Lawler (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) - soon to be nicknamed ‘Cosmo’ - spots a stylish older girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). It’s 1985 Dublin, so she’s dressed like a mix of early Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. She claims to be a model. He claims to be a singer in a rock band; he needs a model like her to star in his next video. We know he’s lying – he’s just a skinny, unassuming boy who has been shipped to a new school where he’s harassed by bullies and teachers alike - and we sense she might be lying, too. Cosmo presses ahead, though all he knows about music is what he hears from his older brother (Jack Reynor), a stoner in his mid-twenties who wallows in the ‘80s pop explosion. It’s MTV time: Duran Duran, puffy haircuts, and the dying embers of The Clash. When Raphina asks Cosmo to sing a bit for her, he warbles a few off-key lines from the '80’s chestnut, ‘Take On Me’ by A-Ha. Astoundingly, she accepts his invitation to star in his video. He promptly runs to meet one of his mates and announces, “We have to start a band.” That’s where the fun part of the movie begins, as Cosmo finds what little talent there is among his rough school mates and, with tips from his brother, whips his raggedy little group into rock ‘n’ roll shape. Writer-director John Carney borrows a bit from films like The Commitments and School of Rock and even High Fidelity, but his real inspiration seems to be the films of John Hughes. Squint your eyes, and Cosmo could be Jon Cryer or Anthony Michael Hall; Raphina could be Molly Ringwald or Ally Sheedy. Sing Street is only superficially about rock ‘n’ roll. It’s actually a romantic teen fantasy, where each of the characters nurses a little wound somewhere in their soul, and the underdogs win.
Carney obviously has an affection for the period and the music, but when Cosmo goes from being a Duran Duran wannabe, to a Robert Smith clone, to wearing one of those dreadful little hats that bands like Dexy’s Midnight Runners used to wear, I couldn’t tell if this was just being done for a visual effect, or if Carney was making a joke about the flimsiness of the era. The music of the 1980s was so delicate, like bubbles, that it needed the silliness of videos to give it what little substance it had. But the movie isn’t really about music, despite the walls of vinyl at Cosmo’s house. Eventually, there are plots to be resolved, and emotional hurts to come to the fore. Even the ultra-confidant Raphina has some adolescent aches that need soothing. It turns out she’s a bit of a mess, but Cosmo loves her just the same, even though she dismisses him as just a young boy. And Cosmo’s family is falling apart – his mother is having an affair, and his father will soon be moving out. The only solace Cosmo finds during these troubling times is when he’s writing tunes with his buddy Eamon, a loner kid who raises rabbits and happens to play all the instruments in his father’s wedding band. I liked Eamon. As played by Mark McKenna, he’s the sort of smirking kid I knew from my own teen years, a boy too eccentric to be part of the crowd, but hording unsuspected talents. He’s the sort of co-conspirator Cosmo needs, always willing to try something, no matter how grandiose the idea. He steals every scene he’s in, flashing an easy smile at the joy he has found: he’s in a band.
Fortunately, McKenna doesn’t have any grandstanding moments, which Carney likes to lather on like butter. Raphina gets her bit where she weeps and moans about the troubles in her life, and Cosmo’s brother Brendan has a doozy of a scene where he smashes a bunch of his old albums and laments how he’s wasted his life. “I used to be a fucking jet engine!” he wails. Prior to this outburst, he slouched around the house offering amusing bon mots, an Irish cross between Jack Black and Seth Rogan. “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins,” he says at one point, which I suppose gets a laugh in some theaters. As played by Jack Reynor, Brendan is the sort of archetype who exists in these sorts of movies just to tell his younger brother, “Don’t make the same mistakes I made!” Strangely, he doesn’t look to be more than 24 or 25, but acts as if his life is over. But that’s what makes the movie lyrical, and gives Cosmo his chance to be a hero. By the end, as Cosmo and Raphina run off together, we realize we’re not watching real people, but fantasy figures, no more realistic than the illustrations on the cover of a romance novel. They hurt inside, but the hurts are there so the audience can say, yes, indeed, there’s no worse agony than being a lonely teenager, yet there’s nothing that can’t be cured by simply running down the street, hand in hand with your best girl or guy, while some appropriate music plays in the background.
Carney has so much fun with his movie that he piles on three or four happy endings, but it all seems to happen too quickly. The gawky Cosmo becomes a dynamic front man in too short a time; the band becomes polished after just a few rehearsals; and Raphina goes from being the unattainable love object to Cosmo’s willing sidekick with only a smidgen of fuss. Raphina also appears younger in each scene – when we first see her she looks like Joanna Lumley from Absolutely Fabulous, but by the end of the movie she’s nearly as fresh-faced as young Cosmo. The school bully (played with zeal by Ian Kenny) , who seems as evil and demented as a character from A Clockwork Orange, mellows, too. That’s what bullies do in movies like this – they turn out to be lovable, misunderstood blokes. (In real life, though, they eventually murder somebody.) Carney gets a major boost from Yaron Orbach’s cinematography. Orbach makes Dublin look refreshing, as if it’d been blown out by a gigantic hair dryer, and scenes of ships leaving Dublin for London take on a mystical, adventurous tone. The movie may be hollow at its center, but Carney achieves what he set out to achieve, namely, an inflated paean to adolescent daydreams of escape and triumph.
Where Carney botched it in my book is in the way he treats the band. The scenes where they shoot their videos are amusing enough, and the boys get to play a gig at their school where they take a few jabs at a belligerent authority figure, but the band seems to be less important as the movie rolls along. I wanted to know more about them, and share in their excitement. There’s a nice clip in the trailer (that didn’t make it into the movie) where the group’s scrappy little manager says, “I actually love this band.” I would’ve preferred a movie where a kid starts a band to impress a girl, and inadvertently falls in love with the band. There’s a great moment in adolescence, if you’re lucky enough, where your favorite band is the one you’re in. But Carney didn’t want to make that movie. Instead, he wanted to make The Breakfast Club, or Pretty in Pink, and the movie has been successful enough on the indie and festival circuit (Reynor won a Best Supporting Actor award from the Irish Film & Television Academy) that he’s probably quite proud. As they say in Dublin, Fair play to him.
The 1980s and a middle-aged man's vision of teen yearning have been sweetened up in this movie, presented like pictures in a restaurant menu that make the food look twice as good as it does in reality. Five minutes after you leave the cinema, Sing Street vaporizes, except for one bright, magical sequence where Cosmo proposes a band video based on the high school dance scene from Back to The Future. The band suddenly appears in shiny suits, and Cosmo struts convincingly with his hair in a pomp. His parents and brother appear in the audience, teachers do handsprings across the gymnasium floor, and kids bustle about doing their own awkward versions of 1950s dances. It's a fun bit - a 2016 movie looking back at a 1980s movie that looked back at the '50s. Fittingly, Carny’s version of the 1980s is as banal as Back to the Future’s version of the ‘50s, but in this scene it works because it’s only being imagined by Cosmo. When the sequence ends with him realizing the gym is empty, we’re nearly as heartbroken as he is. And you may wonder how moviemakers could stage a scene like this one, smartly melding fantasy - which was the real raison d'être behind rock videos - and the bittersweet, in the middle of such a self-consciously upbeat movie.