(John Carney, 2016)
I was brought up in 1980s Dublin. I went to a Christian Brothers all-boys Secondary school in a rough area. I loved music; as an escape, as a release.
Sing Street, then, spoke to me in a way few films do. The story of a 15 year old middle class boy transferred from his posh school (the way the Christian Brothers contemptuously refer to "Jesuits" gets across something hilarious and profound about Irish culture in two syllables) to a much rougher one nearby and escapes the brutality and bleakness of life in '80s Dublin through pop music is joyous and funny throughout, but in a very Irish way, it is never blind to the realities of the world it portrays.
That means that Carney shows how Dublin - perhaps the poorest capital city in Europe in the '80s - was subject to deprivation and social issues.
The background to the story is filled with absent parents; alcoholism, heroin addiction, mental health issues. Shot on location around Dublin's working class inner city, Carney sets much of the story in the council estates that ring the city centre. Here they are full of graffiti and litter; crumbling and in undeniable disrepair. But the story seems all set in summer - sunshine fills this film until the last scene, and the day-glo '80s fashions both accentuate this lightness and positivity and are given a strange context by the daylight; velvet suits and goth make-up look beautifully ridiculous in a street in afternoon sunlight.
Our lead is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), whose parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle-Kennedy) are enduring a crumbling marriage and reduced economic circumstances. He moves to Synge Street Christian Brothers school, where he is bullied both by students and staff (the film subtly acknowledges the abuse that was still a feature of such schools in that era) and is only saved when he sees Raphina (Lucy Boynton) on the steps of the Girls Home opposite the school. To impress her, he invents a band on the spot and invites her to star in their video. So then he has to recruit band members, write a song and make a demo.
Things snowball from there, as the band (Sing Street) improve and bond, while Conor and Raphina develop a connection. All the while Conor is guided by his stoner dropout of an older brother (Jack Reynor).
Just as in his breakthrough Once, Carney is perhaps most at home with the scenes of musical discovery - the bits here where Conor and his bandmate Eamonn write songs together are full of a sense of excitement and potential - and Conor's love of music runs parallel with his love of Raphina. The romance works even if both leads are slightly miscast. Boynton is suitably beautiful - she is meant to stand out in '80s Dublin, and she does - but her accent wavers all over the place. Walsh-Peelo never has the charisma or complexity of a lead. Indeed, Reynor blows him off screen in their shared scenes. But he does well with the musical scenes and much of the comedy, a lot of which is carried by the supporting characters.
The richly detailed world here is what makes the film work so well. Each character has an inner life, every detail makes sense. The music is lovely, and the cut from Hall & Oates' "Maneater" to the boy's rip-off is a brilliant moment. The ending is feel-good in the best way, and the themes of brotherhood and creativity are nicely developed throughout.
Plus: it is really funny.