Sing Street (2016)

Written & Directed by John Carney

Before I developed my love of movies, I had developed a strong love of music, though I was never talented enough to play instruments, read music, or let alone form my own band to write and play music. But it was still something very special to me. I will admit to having gone through a guitar phase where I was obsessed with the instrument and sought out the best players to listen to, which led me to three 80s virtuoso’s in particular : Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson. It was a phase, and I still obsess over the instrument, but have migrated toward blues players like Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Freddie King. I bring all of this up when talking about Sing Street because it’s a movie about making music. I never had the talent, but that never stopped me from listening, or asking for a guitar for Christmas. It sits in the basement, mostly gathering dust, but there are times when I pick it up and play a few out of tune, ill-conceived notes which make me feel like a rockstar. The beauty of music is that it doesn’t take much to express emotion. You can be singing along to the radio at the top of your lungs in your car, or beating the steering wheel to the beat, or even playing air guitar along with one of the greats. Music has a very raw, emotional, natural place in our lives. John Carney has shown this with his films Once and Begin Again and with Sing Street, he continues that tradition.

I usually try to connect something personal in all of my reviews, but the above testimonial seems even more pertinent given Sing Street‘s inspiration, which finds writer/director John Carney returning to his childhood in this semi-autobiographical tale. In place of Carney is Conor (Ferdia Walh-Peelo), a boy in Dublin, Ireland who is forced to change schools as the economy and his parents marriage struggle. While at school, Conor sees the woman of his dreams hanging out across the street. Spurred on by her beauty, and with the guidance of his music loving, slacker brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), Conor forms a band with his classmates as a ploy to get Raphina (Lucy Boynton) to star in their videos. Using Raphina as his muse, Conor and bandmate Eamon (Mark McKenna) begin writing songs to express their adolescent condition.

Like Once and Begin Again before it, Sing Street is an imperfect film, yet John Carney manages to infuse very real, emotionally charged moments, characters, and experiences into this less than perfect film, thereby managing to almost highlight the imperfections as important contributors to the film’s success. For one, Conor approaches Raphina in the beginning way too easily, although as the story progresses we learn that Conor is a bold character who is prone to putting himself out there at the risk of failure. Once the band forms, they get good, like really good, way too fast, though I suppose that is also sort of the point since Conor is speaking from his heart, inspired by Raphina, his muse. Lastly, Brendan, Conor’s brother, appears early on to be this convenient fount of important life knowledge, guiding his kid brother through this thing with adept control, all the while appearing a slacker himself. This convenience is soon subverted in what turns out to be one of the more important messages of the film. I am not trying to make excuses for these faults. They are faults. But Carney is not making a movie about how to make an awesome band, or how to talk to girls. These elements are subsidiary to how Carney explores putting yourself out there and making the most of what life gives you, which is often an imperfect setting.

One of the themes that runs through all three of Carney’s notable music movies is process. As with Once and Begin Again, Carney is once again focused on the process of making music rather than it’s product. He strives to explore why music is made, how music is made, and what it means to those who make it. As the audience, we can sit in the theater and enjoy the music, or not, but there is very little in the way of characters on screen judging the music Sing Street is producing, which brings to light Carney’s idea of process, and why Conor is spurred on by writing music.The music is great, by the way. The film is structured around the tenuous relationship between Conor and Raphina, and as more information is exposed about both their pasts, their romance blossoms and peters out in equal parts, bringing heartbreak, sadness, as well as happiness and brightness. This happy/sad theme is another Carney explores with great effect.

Raphina is an orphan, while Conor is coming from a broken family himself, and yet they share this connection which keeps Raphina at arms length for most of the time, scared of what getting too far from, or perhaps too close to her dreams, might mean for her future. We often see Raphina replete with make-up, trying to hide her truths, to hide her past. Conor is soon also wearing make-up, but it’s in the moments when Raphina is more truly herself that the two connect on a deeper level. After she jumps into the sea and loses her make-up, or when we see her connecting deeply to a song Conor has just written  while she removes her make-up in the solitude of her room. Her relationship with Conor reveals to herself who she really is, and what her hopes and dreams truly are. We are even given a scene where Brother Baxter, who is seen as the establishment Conor is meant to subvert throughout the film, forcefully remove the make-up Conor wore to school one day, as if to say to him that he doesn’t need it, even though his motivations during the scene are much more determined.

We all must cope with what life hands us, and sadness, as Pixar’s Inside Out showed us last year, is an essential emotion. Music is just one way to cope and communicate that emotion, while we must also learn to be happy with our sadness and come out the other end of things more positive than negative. Brendan, in all his infinite wisdom, tells us that “Rock ‘n’ Roll is a risk,” but so is life. We all risk being ridiculed, turned away and denied with everything we do in life. This is why Conor is so bold. He walks right up to Raphina with a story about a band, walks away from Brother Baxter when he is asked to remove his makeup, and he decides to play a slow song when the audience wants more of the upbeat tunes they’ve written. Conor exudes the confidence necessary to not just be his own person, but to also express who he is and pursue what he wants, either confident enough to “drive it like he stole it”, or deal with the consequences of coming up short.

Conor puts himself out there to be ridiculed, but in doing so he soars higher than anything his brother Brendan could have ever dreamed of. And in the end, we learn it’s Conor’s relationship with Brendan that is perhaps the most impactful on everything Conor has accomplished. In one of the more emotionally charged scenes in the film, Conor imagines what his ideal music video would be in his head while filming the noticeably sub-par version in real life. In this scene, we see what Conor really wants out of life and the people he shares it with, even if he knows they can’t all come true. John Carney has once again captured the magic of broken lives and the power of music into an oftentimes funny, very real and very raw narrative called Sing Street.

***1/2 – Great

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