Writer-director John Carney is apparently on a mission to make earnest sentimental movies about the power of music bringing people together and helping nice people discover their passions. His latest is Sing Street, a return to his native Ireland after a jaunt to Hollywood for the slick and phony music business-set Begin Again. The perfect middle ground between that and his raw and tender debut film, the great busker romance Once, his new effort is a conventional and conventionally appealing music picture. It’s about a scrappy group of lower-class kids with big dreams, misfits and outcasts who, in making music together, find common cause and cause for hope. It’s set in the late 80s, so the kids find inspiration in the likes of Duran Duran, a-ha, and The Clash, heavy on the driving electric synths and keyboards, splashy snares, spacious soaring vocals, and energetic bass. (It’s not the Beatles, one father grumbles, funny because we’re farther from the 80s than they were the 60s.) The movie makes familiar plot moves, but gets exactly right the sense of youthful discovery, where music isn’t just a key part of identity, but new and alive with possibility.
Our lead is Cosmo, a meek 15-year-old boy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in an engaging screen debut) whose parents (Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen and Orphan Black’s Maria Doyle Kennedy) announce a budget crunch. This takes him out of a nice Jesuit school and into a cruel one operating on a harsher brand of Catholicism. He’s immediately unhappy, a target for the bullies amongst peers and priests alike. Good thing he gets an immediate crush on a cool dropout girl (Lucy Boynton) and thinks up an icebreaker on the spot: “Want to be in a music video?” She says yes, so he runs back to the one pal he’s managed to befriend (Ben Carolan) and tells him, “We need to start a band.” Under the tutelage of his stoner older brother (Jack Reynor) and his record collection, he starts to think up a sound. With this fresh sense of mission he’s able to meet new friends, including a sheepish musician (Mark McKenna) who becomes his songwriting partner, a keyboardist (Percy Chamburuka), a bassist (Conor Hamilton), and a drummer (Karl Rice). Just like that, they’re a band.
There’s some wistful irony to a period piece in which the a character asserts his New Wave pop punk band will be about the future, not the nostalgia acts of other schools’ cover bands. Some of the film’s appeal sits squarely in nostalgia, looking lovingly on fashion, hair, and sounds of 80’s Ireland. It follows the naïve and earnest group cobbling together an evolving look – pastel suits, hair dye, Halloween costumes, and glam-rock makeup – then lugging equipment around to practice and perform for their own enjoyment. They have a cassette recorder around to play back their outfits’ songs, a heavy camcorder for taping their dancing and mugging for creative super-low-budget music videos. There is terrific creative energy in seeing the music come together, first shyly and fumblingly, then with what can only be described as total teenage confidence. The original songs, by Carney and a variety of collaborators (including Once’s Glen Hansard), are all quite good, some of which could be honest-to-goodness hits on the radio today.
Every number – catchy hummable toe-tappers all – conveniently flows directly out of the lead’s feelings throughout the narrative. This gives movie and music a shared spine that keeps focus narrowly on Cosmo’s concerns. It’s never as much an ensemble delight as its band-centric story approaches from time to time – the other kids are fun to hang around, but they’re not developed much beyond their surface features – but the charming boy-grows-up character piece has its sweetness. There’s an easy, straightforward romanticism on display in an adorably chaste presentation of its puppy love crush, and in the giddy rush creativity brings to its characters’ steps. (It shares with We Are the Best! and That Thing You Do! the cheery spirit of youthful musicianship. No exclamation needed.) Carney shapes the film to state its themes and emotions plainly, with the direct clarity of an easy YA novel.
It gets its effect through such unfussy and direct emotional appeals, feinting in direction of more serious ideas before caving in with syrupy pop resolutions – look at the bully’s fate, for example – albeit with room for sadness and disappointment to linger. One of its best sequences is a rehearsal that expands into Cosmo’s fantasy, an elaborate dance number that becomes a dream of happy endings that’ll never happen. No matter how much the music may lift his spirits and make him friends, some problems – familial, financial, and so on – won’t change. It keeps some perspective. Music’s ability to unite has its limits, but using the artistic impulses which draw these kids together, as a means of defining their identities by trying on new ones, is a bighearted approach to likable cliché. It works because it’s presented so sincerely and simply, aware of its characters and their worlds’ specificity, without pushing the story to miserabilism one the one side or false hope on the other. It stakes out comfortable and endearing feel-good middle ground.