Every once in a long while, a work of art comes along that unsuspectingly and completely sweeps me off my feet. It very rarely happens, but when it does, it’s nirvana— it is an intense, deep connection to something within the work that I am humbled by and utterly grateful for. For many, this fleeting feeling can be found in music, as it lends itself well: the lyrics can be interpreted to apply to one’s circumstances, the melodies can be intoxicating, and the song is over within minutes, allowing these short bursts of emotion to sustain unspoiled. Seldom does this happen in film, but for me, Sing Street is an absolute, unexpected knockout; a film so satisfying and heartening that its exhilerating spell overcomes all of its minor flaws. I now see why it was the darling of Sundance.
The new musical drama from John Carney , whose previous work includes Once and Begin Again, revolves around Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a 15-year old boy growing up in Dublin in 1985. Life is not easy— Conor’s chain-smoking father (The Wire and Game of Thrones alum Aiden Gillen) is struggling to pay the bills for his family, Conor’s mother has fallen in love with another man, his older brother (Jack Reynor) is a hash smoking college dropout, and his sister is ignorant to it all. Such seems to be the situation of many living in inner-city Dublin during the 80’s; it’s a place struggling to stay alive enough to even employ its citizens. Those that have the means flee to London, the bastion of hope for the time, while those who stay turn to vices of all kinds to maintain their sanity and hold on to the last shred of life and enjoyment they can feel. For Conor, it’s rock and roll, a passion taught to him by his older brother, who also uses the music as a coping mechanism for his situation. When Conor moves to a new, rougher school because of his family’s finances and ultimately meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a broken young orphan who has dreams of moving to London and becoming a model, Conor’s fire for music and ensuing crush on Raphina drive him to start a band. In doing so, Conor transforms from a shy, unsure boy into a confident, ardent young man embarking on the true beginning of his life.
The story of Sing Street is not all that original or unpredictable. We’ve all seen coming-of-age movies, especially ones where the boy meets the girl and he does something outside of his comfort zone to impress her. But like a beautiful song, Sing Street starts simply and swells into something great. Ultimately, it is its earnest execution that allows Sing Street to soar. John Carney’s writing and direction depict a school yard and a place in life that we can all relate to, despite being set in an area and time that many of us cannot. Carney does not shy away from the ugliness of the time, but he does not dwell in it either. These are cheerful characters, even in their misery, and the laugh-out-loud moments far outnumber the solemn ones, leaving me completely content to spend time with Conor, his family, and friends. This connection and investment in our characters quietly pays off in spades by the film’s finale, which packs quite an emotional wallop, despite its predictability. Additionally, the soundtrack is wholly fantastic and the original music fits in surprisingly well with the iconic 80’s rock from which it draws its influences. The band’s songs are catchy as hell and, more importantly, speak to the current feeling of the characters, drawing the audience deeper and deeper into the story. I know songs like Up and Drive It Like You Stole It will be on my playlist for quite some time.
The cast is equally stellar. Freda Walsh-Peelo is incredible and understated as Conor— his impassioned performance anchors the entire film, even as his singing skills are raw and untrained. Lucy Boynton’s Raphina could have easily been a one-note character; instead, she is a complex, flawed young woman with her own baggage and dreams. Especially surprising and affecting is Jack Reynor as Conor’s older brother and muse, Brendan, who had bittersweet tears streaming down my cheeks by the final scene. Admittedly, the remaining characters are less sketched out than these three, but lending more screen time to rounding out everyone’s motivations would have confused the sharp, focused soul that is present in Sing Street.
I’m all-in on this film. It is about the magic of youth and ambition and art and destiny, and it comments on all of those things beautifully. It captures the romance of chasing your dreams and having the fortitude to do so. It’s funny, it’s sad, and above all, it’s hopeful. I know full well that it may not have this effect on everyone, but Sing Street just connected for me on all levels. It is one of my favorite movies of the last few years. Plus, the soundtrack kicks ass.
Sing Street opens today in Philly area theaters.