Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review: Sing Street

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
One of the most common problems with films about fictional bands is that the music they perform during the course of the movie isn't typically good enough to convince an audience that the group could be a phenomenon. For example, I recently watched the 1976 remake of "A Star is Born," which is set in the world of 1970s rock 'n' roll, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and, needless to say, I wasn't buying that the music in the picture would have reached a wide audience.

John Carney's latest film, "Sing Street," has no such problem. Not only is the picture a wonderful surprise - perhaps, the sleeper of spring 2016 - but the songs performed by its fictional band are catchy and feel at home during the time when the film is set - Ireland in the mid-1980s.

All three of Carney's films that have screened in the U.S. - the lovely "Once," the decent but slight "Begin Again" and, now, "Sing Street" - have focused on the act of making music, whether it's cutting a record as in the case of the first two films or, in his latest, the creation of songs and music videos.

The film kicks off with Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) strumming on his guitar and using his parents' (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle-Kennedy) loud fighting in the background as fodder for his lyrics. The family calls to order a meeting during which Conor and his siblings learn that, due to money constraints as a result of Ireland's weak economy, Conor will be pulled out of his private school and sent to a free local school operated by the Christian Brothers.

From the moment he sets foot in the place, Conor knows he's in trouble. Overrun by young hoodlums eager to pick on him and operated by a tyrannical priest, the school is a nightmare. But he spots a pretty and - as it turns out, complicated - young woman named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) across the street from the school and works up the courage to talk to her. She tells him she's planning on being a model and, on the fly, he asks her if she wants to be in a video that he and his band is shooting. The problem is: there's no band.

In search of band members, Conor puts up a flyer at his school and enlists a group of kids who all have musical talent and, most likely, are also picked on by the school's rough and tumble crowd. Among the motley crew are a small redhead who acts as the band's manager, a pair of brothers, the school's only black kid and a boy whose father is a lounge lizard type and has the ability to play virtually any instrument.

On the one hand, "Sing Street," which is the name of the band and a riff on the school - Synge Street - they attend, is a wish fulfillment fantasy that, one could argue, is likely the stuff of movies and not real life, although its time and place add a fair amount of grittiness. On the other, the picture is so utterly winsome, good spirited and well made that it hardly matters.

One of my favorite elements in the picture - which is accompanied by a touching dedication right before the credits roll - is how Conor's older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor, who gives the impression of an Irish Seth Rogen) takes his younger sibling under his wing as the boys form their band, schooling him on The Cure, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Joe Jackson and other popular acts of the era. Brendan also takes on the role of parent to Conor, albeit one who's just as likely to blaze up a joint as they are to send you to your room, when the brothers' actual parents are spending much of their time screaming at each another.

It's also amusing to watch how Conor and Sing Street progress artistically as they concoct each song and their music videos become more complex - a fantasy sequence involving the film's best original song is accompanied by a "Back to the Future" homage, for example. Their outfits and hairstyles - one minute Robert Smith, the next Simon Le Bon - also go through various stages.

And at the center of it all is a budding friendship - and occasionally more - between Conor and Raphina, which gives the film its emotional kick. More than anything else, the film is bittersweet. While romance buds and catchy songs are written, there are also out-of-work parents, abusive guardians and dreams deferred. Or, as Brendan tells his younger brother, the state of being "happy-sad," which he punctuates with a spin of a Cure album.

This is a very well made, good hearted and highly enjoyable movie. Similar to "Once," it's another great film - by the same director - on how music, or any type of art for that matter, can inspire us, forge bonds between like-minded people and provide an escape, even if temporary, during difficult times. "Sing Street" is the year's most pleasant surprise.

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