(PG-13, The Weinstein Company, 106 mins., theatrical release date: April 15, 2016)
In the 1970s, Van Morrison mused on the transcendent promise of rhythm & blues in his own thickly-brogued, folksy fashion, rekindling the romantic charge in Jackie Wilson's honeyed voice as well as his own passion for live performance as channeled by the 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra. To cite one of Van's influences, Sam Cooke, he could no longer fight the feeling, and the It's Too Late to Stop Now LP of 1974, as well as its three-volume companion piece released over 40 years later, is on par with the Cooke who played the Harlem Square Club or James Brown at the Apollo back in the 1960s.
Fellow Irishman John Carney aims to capture that same revitalization of spirit through song, which is tricky business since his forte is narrative filmmaking. Through sheer force of intimacy, 2007's Once managed to convey that passion through the professional and romantic union of a busker and an immigrant on the streets of Dublin. It was also hailed as a miracle for the movie musical format due to its naturalistic, nuts-and-bolts scale. Carney's third film is a period piece set in 1985, neither the freshest or the most honest era for pop music let alone nostalgia. Not only that, but it's a teen film set in 1985, the year the genre exploded for the American market.
Chalk it up to Carney's grounded sincerity and filmic lyricism that Sing Street, were it time-warped back into the heyday of Hughes, could've usurped 92% of its competition on the strength of imagination alone.
Lots of youth-oriented pictures in the first half of the 1980s touted music-as-escape, the majority of which simple-mindedly reduced the concept to flashy montages or raucous house parties or dance bonanzas. In the hands of hucksters, such freedom came across as trivial. John Carney communicates the shared bond people can form over late night turntable binges, as well as the inspiration it can yield. There is a moment a little over 30 minutes in where two boys spin Joe Jackson and The Jam, crack jokes about rabbit pellets and brainstorm an original song. Carney fluidly expands that confidential moment of creativity into a band practice of the same tune and goes further from there. The rhythm of the film and the song interlock gracefully, and you can sense the main character's growing confidence handled with majestic precision.
Carney's human touch is more than fitting given that budding singer/lyricist Conor Lawlor's dizzying coming-of-age is all for love, specifically one for the beguilingly beautiful older girl who stands in waiting across from Conor's parochial school on Synge Street. She's Raphina, an aspiring model with a drug-dealer boyfriend whom she claims will whisk her off to London, land of opportunity. Conor asks if she'd be interested in being a video vixen in the meantime for his rock band. Before he knows it, Conor and his new friend, prepubescent entrepreneur Darren Mulvey (Ben Carolan), are hustling to form said group and produce said video for a non-existent song.
Advised by his college dropout brother Brendan and allied with homely multi-instrumentalist Eamon, who names the ragtag five-piece band Sing Street, Conor's individuality blossoms upon exposure to the likes of Duran Duran, Hall & Oates and The Cure. The band practice Conor & Eamon's new songs and film a second video on the way to their first gig at the midterm dance. Conor falls deeper for the orphaned Raphina whilst having to confront his own disintegrating family unit as well as the pressures from draconian school headmaster Baxter (Don Wycherley) and ruffian classmate Barry (Ian Kenny).
Forget all that you can read about Sing Street being a youthful version of The Commitments (do watch for Maria Doyle Kennedy as Conor's ma opposite Aidan Gillen), because this is on a higher level of cinematic nirvana. Think more of Bill Forsyth, who made the winsome Gregory's Girl in 1981. Think more of John Duigan, author of the affecting Danny Embling saga with The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting. Imagine a School of Rock if it had been written by Richard Linklater as well as directed by him. Carney's charm is reminiscent of those films, so rich with character-building sensitivity and mundane-seeming quirkiness and a naturalistic, guileless treatment of growing pains. It would seem to be a dreamer's version of a depressing reality, especially given how Dublin appears a one-horse town (the end credits offer an assurance that things have progressed in the economy and educational system), but there is way too much courage, wisdom and tenderness in Sing Street's slice-of-life playlist to ever write off as sappy, closet-pretentious button-pushing.
As Conor himself puts it to his bandmates, looking for the words to clarify Raphina's diagnosis that he's not happy being sad, "it means that I'm stuck in this shithole full of morons and rapists and bullies...I'm gonna try and accept this and get on with [life] and make some art."
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is a terrific discovery as Conor Lawlor, the pint-sized New Romantic whom Raphina pet-names "Cosmo." More than just another lovesick archetype, Walsh-Peelo turns Cosmo's clumsiness into the stuff which makes him secretly the coolest kid on the block. It's got nothing to do with the fact that he walks into Christian Brothers School one day resembling a junior Nick Rhodes (although I smirk every time I notice it), but it's the incremental integrity and bottomless joy of discovery he demonstrates. Getting the girl may be a top priority, and rooting for him is an irresistible inevitability, but if he has more songs in his heart, then he truly deserves his name written in the cosmos.
Lucy Boynton perfects that same attractiveness of soul and body as Raphina, a sophisticated 16-year-old whose innocence is renewed by the affections of Conor. The Sing Street band mates, trained musicians all, appear to have less material to excel with than the leads, but John Carney does right by them regardless. Mark McKenna has that droll, lanky demeanor which automatically signals introversion, but there's a spark in his Eamon that makes him an invaluable asset for Connor. Percy Chamburuka gets a great introduction as "golliwog" keyboardist Ngig, whilst Karl Rice & Conor Hamilton shine as the elementary-aged bassist Garry and drummer Larry. Rice's impromptu costume for the band's first video shoot turns out be a corker, and he also dances with an elderly lady on the shuttle.
As Brendan, Jack Reynor plays the kind of boisterous, slacker savant that Jack Black does so well, but while he gets a handful of opportunities to demonstrate such (there's a putdown of Phil Collins worthy of Black's overbearing clerk from High Fidelity), Reynor also gets at the inner resentment brought on by his dysfunctional parents and his kid brother's prodigious ascent. When Conor sings "You just can't stand the way/That I turned myself around" in one song, it feels closer to his relationship with Brendan than Raphina. But Carney shades in lovely bondings between Conor and both these respective muses, and Reynor finds the soul in his own character as much as Walsh-Peelo and Boynton.
And then there's that soundtrack, which is another impeccable touch to add alongside Carney's proficiency with his actors here: "Rio," "A Town Called Malice," "Maneater," "Steppin' Out," "In Between Days," Motorhead's "Stay Clean," Genesis' "Paperlate," Flash & The Pan's "Waiting for a Train," and Spandau Ballet's "Gold." All of these top-notch selections are matched by the original compositions which take cues from the hits on show, written by Carney with assistance from Gary Clark of "Mary's Prayer" renown. "The Riddle of the Model" flaunts John Taylor-style slap bass and Walsh-Peelo's spot-on impression of Phil Oakey's monotone. "Up" takes flight both lyrically and musically, and "Brown Shoes" is a singular kiss-off anthem from Conor to his tormentors (although skinhead Barry is sold on being a roadie). But Clark's solo compositions, the gorgeous "To Find You" and the giddy "Drive It Like You Stole It," are the surest and best candidates for Oscar consideration, even with Adam Levine, the Maroon 5 singer who starred in Carney's Begin Again, collaborating with "Falling Slowly" award-winner Glen Hansard for "Go Now."
The synergy of song and plot in Sing Street is intoxicating. Conor and Raphina exchange a possible video idea for "Drive It Like You Stole It" modeled on the Enchantment Under the Sea dance from Back to the Future. An unspoken betrayal reflecting cruel reality is wrapped around Conor's fantasy of the video during rehearsal, where a group of oblivious teens fail spectacularly to emulate the '50s choreography from the movie. In Conor's mind, there is peace between his parents, Brother Baxter does back flips and Brendan comes through for true love with switchblade and motorbike. Only one of the latter will happen in the end, which isn't hard to guess, but I've never seen a reverie on film this magnificent.
Sing Street is one of 2016's most pleasant little miracles. Like the best of its decade's pin-up pop, it has been blessed with an everlasting hook and a vivacious sense of itself. Carney weaves proven material both in teen movies as well as his own oeuvre into the best long-form music video never made in the ‘80s. It may hit the sweet spot for the fanatically nostalgic, but a coming-of-age movie this superior deserves its own DIY cover version, no vampire teeth required.