After a couple affably fluffy outings with Once and Begin Again, Irish writer/director John Carney turns in a more substantial coming-of-age story in Sing Street. Not only that, he winds it around a revue of the dominant British pop styles of the mid-’80s — post-punk, new wave, new romantic, synthpop — and never loses sight of the earnest, unironic warmth that infuses all his work to date.
It begins, of course, with a girl. Well, actually it begins when the Lalor family in south Dublin feels the pinch of Ireland’s economic downturn, and Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) has to be taken out of his expensive Jesuit school and put into a cheaper one on Synge Street run by the Christian Brothers. It’s the sort of dismal place, tinged by inattention and casual sadism from students and faculty alike, that Pink Floyd taught us to expect from Commonwealth schools.
But it means that he gets to see Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing across the street from the schoolyard, waiting for her boyfriend. She’s a model, or at least she aspires to be, with a portfolio and everything. Her boyfriend is going to take her to London to make her break, like so many young Irish did in the early ’80s. Any day now, he’s going to take her. And this waiting gives Conor the opportunity to ask her to be in a music video. Now all he needs is a band.
That’s where Darren (Ben Carolan) comes in. He has no more musical aptitude than Conor starts with, but he’s a natural hustler. He first enlists Eamon (Mark McKenna), whose father is drying out in rehab and won’t be using the gear for his covers band any time soon. Next is Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), the only black kid in school; obviously he must be able to play something. Larry and Garry (Conor Hamilton and Karl Rice) sign on as drums and bass, though Barry (Ian Kenny) remains antagonistic.
The band starts out rough, trying to imitate the songs they know from Top of the Pops, but Conor’s brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), steers him away from that quickly. Better to woo a woman with one’s own words, although Carney still has them cribbing heavily from their favorite bands. Their first song, “The Riddle of the Model”, would be right at home on Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger, and “Beautiful Sea” could slot in somewhere between The Cure’s Japanese Whispers and The Head on the Door.
But of course it wouldn’t be John Carney if the emotional climax of the film didn’t come along with the sensitive acoustic ballad “Up”, followed by “Brown Shoes” lashing out at the boys’ chief tormentor, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley).
For my money, though, the real peak comes with “Drive It Like You Stole It”, and Conor’s vision a music video like they once ran on MTV. It’s a real return to Carney’s roots, shooting videos for The Frames while he still played with them in the early ’90s. And it’s a welcome callback to the days when rock- and synth-driven music dominated all the pop charts.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.