It’s hard to imagine even the most cynical soul failing to crack a smile at Sing Street, the latest musical dramedy from Once and Begin Again writer/director John Carney. Inspired in part by Carney’s own experiences, Sing Street takes place in Dublin during the mid-1980s when Ireland was plagued by an economic recession, high unemployment and mass emigration. The film opens on its teenage protagonist Conor Lalor (played by enormously appealing newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) holed up in his bedroom strumming a guitar and singing softly to drown out the sound of his parents Robert (Aiden Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) arguing downstairs. Financial struggles following the failure of Robert’s architecture practice have added strain to the couple’s already rocky marriage and forced them to pull Conor out of private school and send him to the local Christian Brothers comprehensive, where the school motto is Viriliter Age (Latin for “Act Manly”).
Conor’s first few days at his new school are rough. He’s terrorized by school bully and budding sociopath Barry (Ian Kenny) and runs afoul of narrow-minded, casually violent school principal Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley) for violating the dress code by wearing brown shoes. Things begin to turn around for Conor when he befriends an entrepreneurial classmate called Darren (Ben Carolan). The pair are hanging out in front of the school when Conor first spies Raphina, a beautiful, enigmatic older girl played with a wonderfully unguarded magnetism by Lucy Boynton. Ignoring Darren’s protestations and the fact that he currently has two black eyes Conor follows the school motto and marches across the street to introduce himself. Upon learning that Raphina is an aspiring model with dreams of emigrating to London Conor impulsively invites her to star in a music video for his band.
Won over by his endearingly awkward impromptu rendition of A-ha’s Take On Me, Raphina agrees and Conor rushes to turn his fictional band into a reality. Darren’s first contribution as band manager is to introduce Conor to Eamon (Mark McKenna), a laconic multi-instrumentalist who proceeds to demonstrate his incredible musical versatility in a hilarious, dizzying montage. The three boys quickly decide on a futurist sound inspired by popular British post-punk and new wave bands of the period like The Cure, Duran Duran, Joy Division and Depeche Mode. Dubbing themselves Sing Street, they add classmates Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice) to the roster and begin recording a series of competent, lacklustre cover tracks.
Thankfully Conor has Brendan (Jack Reynor), the wise, impossibly cool, hash-smoking older brother we all deserve to teach him that rock and roll is about taking risks. Collaborating with Eamon, Connor begins writing lyrics and producing original songs, starting with the catchy, surprisingly intricate Riddle of the Model. Raphina likes the song and thoroughly enjoys acting in the adorably amateurish music video. Wanting to prolong their working relationship and encouraged by Brendan’s commitment to his musical education, Conor continues to write lyrics and come up with concepts for new music videos for Raphina to star in. Focusing on his art helps to distract Conor from the disintegration of his parents’ marriage at home and cope with continued harassment from Barry and Brother Baxter at school, but the teenager worries it won’t be enough to persuade Raphina to abandon her plans to escape dreary Dublin for London.
As with his two previous efforts, director John Carney displays a unique talent for coaxing affectingly naturalistic performances from non-professional actors in Sing Street. Under Carney’s direction former boy soprano Ferdia Walsh-Peelo manages to winningly convey his character’s development from nervous, ruddy-cheeked introvert to charismatic front man with the bold look and swagger to match. The film’s more experienced actors also acquit themselves well, particularly Reynor as Conor’s soulfully insightful slacker big brother and Boynton as the complicated, slightly damaged love interest. Like Once and Begin Again, Sing Street’s original songs, this time penned by Scottish songwriter and former Danny Wilson frontman Gary Clark, are genuinely good, perhaps implausibly so for a bunch of fifteen year-olds, but that is easily forgiven in light of their uplifting appeal.
All in all, Sing Street is a touching, frequently funny and irresistibly charming tale of artistic growth and adolescent romance that audience members are all but guaranteed to enjoy.