It’s official — John Carney is the master of the modern day movie musical. The filmmaker who broke onto the scene and stole indie movie fans’ hearts with “Once” has a gift for crafting films and original music that work together seamlessly to tell emotionally compelling stories. “Sing Street” is probably his most personal effort to date and it pays off.
“Sing Street” follows an Irish teenager named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) living in Dublin in the mid-1980s. His family has fallen under hard times and it has put a strain on his parents’ marriage, making life at home difficult. Once he finds out he’s being sent to a Catholic boys school, music turns out to be the one thing he can find solace in. Thanks to his college dropout brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), Conor is exposed to the likes of “futurist” bands such as Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall & Oates and more, whose music colors the soundtrack and also influences the original songs Conor writes for his band.
The band comes together, of course, because of a girl. Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is a picture-perfect aspiring model a year older his senior who catches Conor’s eye on the way home from school. He convinces her he has a band and she agrees to star in the music video if she likes their sound, so along with a fellow outcast he befriends at school, Conor forms a talented group of schoolmates called Sing Street, a play on their school name. The musical influences from Conor’s brother — and Raphina, of course — inspire their music.
The obvious is that “Sing Street” is Carney’s love letter to his childhood and the music that inspired him, but he’s also crafted a coming-of-age story with which one can easily relate. He taps into what we’ve all felt like being teenager with troubles and heightened emotions and how writing music can be both a powerful and powerfully important way to process it all. Watching Conor and the other boys make music together as a way to make their voice heard is an extremely satisfying part of this viewing experience, because we’ve all had to find outlets for expression at points in our lives, especially as teenagers.
It certainly helps that Carney has composed some soul-stirring and catchy original songs that a real-life band of 15-year-olds would unlikely be capable of. His co-composers deserve to be mentioned by name these tunes are so enjoyable: Gary Clark, Graham Henderson, Carl Papenfus, Ken Papenfus and Zamo Riffman. The songs range from the catchy Hall & Oates-inspired anthem “Drive It Like You Stole It” to the raw and chilling climactic ballad “To Find You.” If that weren’t enough, Carney sends off the film with an original song not written by but intended for the characters, “Go Now,” a collaboration with Adam Levine (Carney’s “Begin Again”) and Glen Hansard (“Once”).
Most impressive about Carney’s filmography to this point is how he packs films with original songs that are important to the story but don’t hinge on it in the way that we’re used to from more traditional musicals. His films are about music, not films that are about other things in which music is the means of expressing what’s happening in the story. It’s more natural this way, but fans of musicals will still gravitate toward his use of original songs to set tone and unlock the emotions present in the narrative.
Bolstered by this lovable soundtrack, “Sing Street” is one of those rare and special films that does the basic things so right. It’s an honest and uncomplicated story packed with such simple yet undeniable truths that it forges an instant connection with the audience. It forgoes drama and opts for relatable daily struggles, relationships and emotions. Despite a lackluster theatrical run, it will almost certainly find a following on Netflix.
Written and Directed by John Carney
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor