Film review - Sing Street: Musical drama hits all the right notes
John Carney's nostalgic comic musical is a treat
Was Ireland in the 1980s really as bad as everyone says? I'm not sure - I was away for most of it - but John Carney grew up there, and in Sing Street gives us a misty-eyed and relentlessly exuberant take on that much-maligned decade. In previous films like Once and Begin Again, Mr Carney has explored the redemptive power of song, and music is even more central to this witty and touching coming-of-age fable. It's been called a mini-Commitments but I think that's slightly unfair, because while Sing Street's plot bears superficial references to Alan Parker's 1991 musical, its tone is quite different.
Talented newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is Cosmo, an intelligent but introverted teenager whose parents (Aidan Gillen, Marie Doyle Kennedy) are on the verge of separating. They fight constantly, and Cosmo, his younger sister Ann (Kelly Thornton) and indolent, hash-smoking older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) use humour to mask their growing anxiety.
This being the 80s, the fashion's bad and money's scarce, and Cosmo gets a nasty shock when his parents take him out of private school and commit him to the tender care of the Christian Brothers at Synge Street.
There he is mercilessly bullied as "posh" until he decides to fight back by asserting his own personality. He dyes his hair and defies the dress code, leading to regular conflicts with the school's enforcer, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley). But Cosmo's not merely looking for trouble: he's fallen in love, and is trying to impress an unattainable girl.
Raphina (Lucy Boynton) lives near the school, and regularly disports herself on a flight of Victorian steps wearing shades and waiting for her elusive boyfriend. When Cosmo plucks up the courage to talk to her, she tells him she's a model and is planning to move to London. On the spur of the moment, he announces that he's in a band, will shortly be shooting a video and asks Raphina would she like to star in it. When she says yes, Cosmo has to find himself a band.
He joins forces with a mild-mannered multi-instrumentalist called Eamonn (Mark McKenna), recruits a drummer and bassist, and rehearsals begin. They're not pretty at first, but robust artistic direction is provided by Cosmo's brother Brendan, who offers his sibling access to his impressive record collection. They watch Top of the Pops together taking notes, and Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and The Cure will be key influences on the emerging band, 'Sing Street'. But they face the music for real when they play their first gig.
John Carney's film seems strongly autobiographical, which perhaps explains its emotional depth, and heart. Eighties Dublin is evocatively recreated, and Carney's decision to shoot around Synge Street itself gives his film an undercutting saltiness. Cosmo's family problems are hinted at rather than flogged to death, but in one lovely scene Cosmo sits on the landing with Brendan watching their mother sunning herself in the back garden and contemplating her loneliness.
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo's performance skilfully combines the gaucheness and bravery of the teenage state, and his painful self-consciousness while shooting the band's first video is touching. The music of the period is cleverly used, and though one wonders why a laid-back stoner like Brendan would recommend the bubblegum tackiness of Duran Duran, 80s veterans will be moved to tears by the soundtrack.
Lucy Boynton and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo share a shy, appealing chemistry, and their irresistible charm helps make the story's rather grandiose climax work.
Superficially gritty but hopelessly romantic, Sing Street is Mr Carney's most complete and satisfying film yet. But central to its success is Jack Reynor's note-perfect portrayal of Brendan, who pushes his younger brother to do things he'd never dare to himself.