John Carney, best known for the Academy Award winning film, ‘Once’, which brought Glen Hansard to the world stage, has perhaps surpassed that with might be considered a thinly disguised memoir, ‘Sing Street’.
Carney, once bassist with Irish rock band, The Frames, followed up ‘Once’ with the Bono-co-written ‘Begin Again’, telling of the life of a struggling singer-songwriter in New York City. With ‘Sing Street’ he takes it back to where it all began, in the age-old story of, boy likes girl, girl has a boyfriend, boy wins girl by forming a band. Or something like that.
In 1980s Dublin, Conor Lalor’s family, like so many others, has fallen on hard times, and are having to pull in their respective belts, in order to make ends meet. Conor’s parents, played superbly by Aidan Gillen (‘Game Of Thrones’) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (‘The Commitments’), have had a downturn in their respective work situations, and this means certain changes have to be made, namely Conor has to be taken out of his private Jesuit secondary school. Conor is sent to the local Christian Brothers school, located in the musically named Synge Street. Here he discovers things are done a little differently to his old school. He has a bad first encounter with head teacher Brother Baxter, and a run in with school bully, Barry. The difference between Baxter and Barry however is that Baxter bullies to maintain his authority: Barry’s behaviour is due to his unhappy home.
Conor is a keen musician, spending his time at home writing songs with his guitar and watching Top Of The Pops with his older brother Brendan (played by the fabulous Jack Reynor), whom he adores. Brendan is the font of all things music knowledge, and informs Conor’s taste, especially when it comes to new artists such as Duran Duran.
Conor, played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, soon makes friends with Darren, an entrepreneur in embryo. Upon leaving school he lays eyes on the beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who for no good reason, stands every afternoon on the front steps of the girls home, where she lives, conveniently opposite Synge Street Christian Brothers. Darren tells Conor there’s no good trying to pursue her, but Conor won’t be put off, and proceeds to chat up Raphina, with the end result being that he tells her he has a band, and asks her to be in a video. Darren becomes the band’s manager, and the story unfolds as the pair set up the band, called, appropriately enough, Sing Street.
Accompanied by a fantastic 80s soundtrack, as well as a number of superb original songs written by John Carney and Gary Clark, you could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Sing Street’ is a simple story, without any hidden depths. But it’s so much more than that. Conor dreams of a time where his parents are happily together and he’s with the beautiful Raphina. His family however is falling apart at the seams: older brother Brendan, although encouraging of Conor’s dreams for success, secretly resents that he’s had it all handed to him, and reveals that their parents should never have got together at all if it wasn’t for the restrictions of the Catholic Church at the time. Raphina’s story is even more grim: she hints at abuse in her childhood home, and there is further abuse at the hands of a boyfriend.
‘Sing Street’ has a magnificent ensemble cast, including Mark McKenna, who plays the enormously talented Eamon. The character was based on a real life friend of John Carney, who, like Eamon, could “play any musical instrument known to man”. Other notable roles include Lydia McGuinness as art teacher Mrs Dunne, who sees Conor’s talent and aids and abets the band in their musical endeavours, and Don Wycherley as Conor’s arch nemesis, Brother Baxter.
With a musical setting, and located in and around Dublin, ‘Sing Street’ has naturally been compared to ‘The Commitments’. It’s different though. In the words of John Carney:
The Commitments and Sing Street couldn’t be more different. In The Commitments, they’re a cover band, doing cover versions of old soul songs. That’s fine, and it’s very funny and enjoyable. But we’re telling the story of a creative process, and of fashioning and shaping and hammering love songs to get the girl to improve your life, to get off the island, and to be a success. And what’s great about The Commitments is that the band isn’t a success. They implode, which is a very truthful story.
There’s a lot to be learned from ‘Sing Street’. It’s about taking life by the horns and running with it, seeing your dreams and following them. Without giving away too much, the film is worth watching right to the very end, and possibly seeing several times if you can – if only to relive the incredible soundtrack.