Threaded through all John Carney’s films—Once, Begin Again, and now Sing Street—is a singular preoccupation: the ways that trouble (in love and in money, mostly) and the artist’s vocation go together. As the former bassist for the Irish band The Frames and a now-successful filmmaker, you can imagine that he comes by this naturally; Carney has said he was living in his basement when he made Once (starring his Frames buddy Glen Hansard), which became a huge hit and spawned a Tony-winning Broadway musical as well.
But while there are hints of Carney’s history in his earlier films, Sing Street is explicitly autobiographical, the story of Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a fifteen-year-old boy in Dublin in 1985 who wants two things more than anything: to be in a band, and to get the girl.
Connor’s life isn’t going very well: the same banal doldrums a lot of teenage boys experience, but all at once. His parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) fight constantly—providing impromptu lyrics for Connor’s noodling on the guitar—and probably splitting up. His older brother (Jack Reynor), whom he looks up to, has dropped out of college and is bumming around the house. Money is tight, and Connor has to switch from his nice Jesuit school to one run by bullies and sadistic Christian Brothers. The school’s biggest bully, Barry, picks on him. His best friend is a nerd. And he’s still very much in the gawky stage. All this is set against the backdrop of the Irish recession, during which many young people fled for London in search of opportunity. Sing Street is set among the working poor, people who can still pay some bills but are downwardly mobile and plagued by other problems—drugs, alcoholism, dwindling work and, in the case of some of the teenagers, physical and sexual abuse they have little power to escape.
So in the words of Raphina (Lucy Boynton), the girl Connor spots and falls for instantly, the film is “happy sad”—which basically makes it Irish. But instead of tapping folk and songwriter-driven rock for this film, Carney drives Connor’s story with iconic 1980s rock—Duran Duran, The Clash, A-ha, David Bowie. (I was born in the 1980s, so I defer on the topic of accuracy to wiser friends, who say some of the selections are technically anachronistic but spiritually on point.)
The teenagers carry the film, especially Boynton, who I think you could watch smile at for days and not get tired, and Walsh-Peelo, who manages to both be childish enough and give off hints of the latent rockstar. They’re accompanied by a band of terrific Irish teenage actors. But my favorite here is Reynor, who is about half Chris Pratt and half Seth Rogen but with perfect comedic timing, an Irish accent, and a deeply affecting core of protectiveness for his younger brother.
The music is infectious and nostalgically fun, but what might be better is Carney’s own songs, which Connor and his band of misfits (who call themselves “Sing Street,” a play on their school’s Synge Street location) write and perform. It’s 80s-reminiscent, light on the anti-establishmentarianism without abandoning it altogether, a survey of styles and themes. The boys are is better than pretty much any amateur bands of tenth graders, but it doesn’t really matter; Carney is somehow a pop writer at heart, which means his gift as a songwriter (along with his collaborators) is to write songs that sound like old favorites the instant you hear them. That moment in Once when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s characters play “Falling Slowly” for the first time and it sounds like every song you fell in love to? That happens over and over in Sing Street, except this time they’re the optimistic, hang in there tunes of teenagers who expect a bright future, even when the present seems dim.