I want to ask all the musicians out there: How many of you learned that instrument primarily to get laid? Nearly all of you? That’s what I thought. It’s a classic story: boy meets girl, boy writes song about girl to try to impress girl, boy…well that’s where it gets interesting. Enter writer-director John Carney, who tackles this old scenario with Sing Street, his triumphant return to the intersection of music and cinema, and one of the best films of the year.
Sing Street follows the formation of the eponymous fictional band led by Conor, a 15 year old kid from broken home forced to transfer to an oppressive church-run school. Attempting to fit in, he forms a band in an effort to impress the lovely Raphina but soon finds that music offers him much more than a way to get laid. It’s a means of connecting to others, of communication, of dealing with pain, of escape and rebellion.
Obviously, this sort of story not only necessitates a great deal of music, it requires that a lot of ORIGINAL music be featured in the film. It’s a make or break thing, really. Luckily I found the music to be legitimately enjoyable. They are a really great approximation of 80’s New Wave pop a la Duran Duran or The Cure, two bands explicitly listed as influences. (Carney is not shy about either his musical or cinematic inspirations), and sound perfectly plausible as song s which kids growing up on those bands might try to write, especially if those kids had some legitimate songwriting talent. In my humble opinion, these are good songs, and anyone assuming Lin Manuel has a lock on the Best Original Song Oscar this year should really look at this soundtrack.
Cinematically, Carney strikes an endearingly messy balance between grounded cinematic realism and wild shifts into the flashy adolescent dreamscapes of old-school MTV. Born in 1972, Carney came of age in during this time in pop history and the film is surely heavily drawn from personal experience. Early in the scene we get a monologue from Brendan, the older brother/mentor of protagonist Conor, in which he expounds on the glorious potential of the music video as a new form of art in which sound and image become intertwined to create something greater. It’s as good a manifesto as any for Carney’s career.
With Sing Street, as in his absolutely wonderful earlier film Once, Carney has yet again created a work of art in which the music and the film feel intrinsically linked. These aren’t typical musicals, in which characters sing their way through a story that could have been told just as easily without it. These films capture the entire experience of creating music, from inspiration, to composition, to performance. We get to see what drives the creation of this art, the feelings these characters are struggling to express, the thrill of finally creating something beautiful and sharing it with the world. There is something purely joyful about watching these characters struggle through all this, discovering each other and themselves in the process.
The film fleshes this out with all sorts of fun little moments and details: experimenting with costumes, brainstorming visual concepts for music videos, singing through a hose in search of new sounds, etc.; usually delivered via very smartly crafted montage. Carney’s command of style is especially impressive if you’ve seen Once. While both are essentially about people being brought together through the process of making music, Once was shot in a very naturalistic, cinema verite/documentary style which fit the older, wearier characters in that film as well as Glen Hansard’s more raw, emotional, and stripped down music. Sing Street, meanwhile, is full of swish pans and dollies, match cuts, polished cinematography, and quick editing. Whereas Once was a film about moments of quiet intimacy and connection, Sing Street is full of energy, big dreams, and wide-eyed optimism.
I honestly can’t see where anyone would find fault with the film, unless you just happen to have a natural aversion to this sort of music or this type of story. Is it perfect? No. There some moments that seemed unnecessary, some minor details that could have been filled out, the plot is entirely predictable. But hey, isn’t that kind of like any good amateur band you’ve ever seen? Bit sloppy, sure, but they’re good guys and it’s a good time. Can’t ask for much more than that.
P.S. If you want a sample of the music, here ya go: