Full of feel-good factor and banging tunes, John Carney’s Sing Street is easily the writer-director’s best work since the Academy award-winning Once. The musical-comedy drama is set in 1980s Dublin and follows the adventures of Cosmo (brought to life via a rich and multi-faceted performance by newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as he moves school, forms a band, and falls in love for the first time.
When Cosmo is bullied in his new school and tormented by Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley), the film initially appears to be yet another critical essay about Ireland’s former state institutions, a trend of national cinema long exhausted. Fortunately, not all is as hopeless as it seems, and things soon take a turn for the better when Cosmo befriends Darren (cheekily and charmingly played by Ben Carolan, another of the many welcome newcomers that make up the cast) and, almost immediately afterwards, meets the beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an aspiring model. Cosmo tells Raphina he has a band and invites her to star in their first music video. He and Darren must then quickly pull a band together with the help of the multi-talented Eamon (Mark McKenna) and other boys in their class.
Sing Street essentially has all you could want from a light and entertaining musical outing – catchy songs, a great sense of humour, and impressive acting from its well-cast youngsters. An ode to the music experimentation of the decade, with some timely David Bowie references in there too, the film manages to capture 1980s Ireland energetically and young love sensitively without ever getting bitterly nostalgic or overly sentimental. Two of the film’s stand-out songs are ‘The Riddle of the Model’ and ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’, both of which eloquently capture the sound and ambience of the decade.
The scenes that follow Cosmo’s home life are also aptly delivered by more established actors in the forms of Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Kelly Thornton and Jack Reynor, who respectively play the teenaged protagonist’s weary parents, diligent sister, and music guru brother. Both Gillen and Kennedy give sympathetic turns in their roles as parents suffering from the emotional and financial bankruptcy of 1980s Ireland, while Reynor continues to prove himself as a force of an actor to be reckoned with.
Aside from a little stutter in pacing as the film moves into its final act, its vibrancy never fades. It presents a world populated by timeless, unforgettable characters and ropes you in, right up to the final bellowed-out ballad by the irrepressible Glen Hansard (star of Once and founder-vocalist-guitarist for Irish band The Frames, where Carney incidentally met Hansard when he was the band’s bassist).
Sing Street has been compared to The Commitments, and indeed the ‘let’s put a band together’ plot and setting in Dublin’s inner city would easily draw comparisons. However, it is much more rewarding to read the film as that of a musician-turned-director honing in on his art and developing his passions for both cinema and music into a piece that ignites with joy and sparkles with talent. Carney’s film output has thus far been at its strongest when he produces touching musicals (in Once and Begin Again) or dramatises the tremulous period that is adolescence (particularly in the bittersweet Cillian Murphy-starrer On the Edge). Here, he combines both into a near-perfect symphony.