After making a “let’s make some music” movie in the US with Begin Again, writer-director John Carney returns to the Dublin setting of his “let’s make some music” movie Once for his third “let’s make some music” movie, Sing Street. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Sing Street does set itself apart from the earlier two movies, though, through focusing on considerably younger protagonists than Once’s buskers and Begin Again’s disgraced music executives, as well as having the period trappings of 1985 Dublin inform its soundtrack and coming-of-age storyline. Ireland’s economic woes of the time, which saw many people leave the country for a potential better life in London, are a key instigator of various troubles in the film, particularly the opening setup in which 15-year-old Conor is forced to relocate his studies to a rough-edged Catholic boys’ school at the behest of his parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy), who are trying to save money while coming to terms with the likely disintegration of their marriage in a country that still forbids divorce.
It is outside the school gates of Synge Street School — a real Dublin school that end credits text posits has changed considerably since 1985 — that Conor sees the mysterious Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a seemingly wise-beyond-her-years, older teenage girl who hangs about a stoop across the street like she’s posing for a fashion magazine of the time, carefully prepped perm, double-denim outfit and all. The very watchable Boynton has a kind of vibe to her where it’s almost as if mid-90s Mia Kirshner suddenly decided to go time travelling to the 1980s. Or, rather, time travelling to the 2010s to make a film set in the 1980s. Look, there’s time travelling involved, okay, and Boynton has that same sort of mix of alluring enigma and irresistible sweetness once her facade starts to wither.
Where does the making music element come in, you may ask? Why, in the same way that many an all-male band has formed: to impress a girl. Conor sheepishly approaches Raphina one day and wins her over with an interest in having her featured in a music video for his band. The problem is that he doesn’t have a band, an issue soon rectified by the assembling of a ragtag collection of school misfits and outcasts; the film’s one glaring flaw is that, aside from rabbit-loving musical prodigy Eamon (Mark McKenna, great comic timing) and “manager” Darren (Ben Carolan, same), the other band members are considerably under-written — the drummer has maybe one line in the entire thing, and it’s in his introduction alongside a far more outspoken character.
Under the tutelage of his university dropout brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), Conor’s band Sing Street pen songs influenced by various notable artists of the time (e.g. a Duran Duran-esque tune called “Riddle of the Model”, inspired by Conor’s feelings for Raphina’s street steps-dwelling), while making music videos on a (even less than) shoestring budget with the girl who’s got their frontman enamoured. The music videos they come up with provide some of the film’s greatest pleasures, as they so perfectly ape the respective styles and editing of early music videos, particularly those coming out of the UK and Ireland where flashy flamboyance was often awkwardly merged with loose attempts at capturing the grit of the streets.
Alongside the scruffy energy of the musical elements is the compelling burgeoning friendship/romance between Conor (later called Cosmo for the stage) and Raphina, a feature that brings to mind another coming-of-age film from just across the water and around the same time as Sing Street’s era setting: Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s enduring, delightful 1981 film Gregory’s Girl. Carney goes for some grander gestures for his teen romance than Forsyth (including something, best left unspoiled, in the final 10 minutes that maybe doesn’t have the greatest cinematic execution), but the spirit of Gregory’s Girl is definitely running throughout Sing Street. So too is that of that other famous Irish “let’s make some music” movie The Commitments. In fact, you could be glib and pithily describe Sing Street as “The Commitments meets Gregory’s Girl.” (There’s your poster quote.) It’s certainly a worthy successor to both of them.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.