by Jasmine Li | October 15, 2020
Dublin, 1985. Duran Duran and the Cure. Teased hair and lightning-bolt makeup. In a time when nostalgia is Hollywood’s most valuable currency, John Carney’s Sing Street (2016) could have been just another Easter egg-filled attempt at pandering to nostalgic sentiment. Yet the film transcends cheap pastiche and commodified nostalgia, instead delivering a genuine love letter to the coming-of-age experience in the zeitgeist of flashy fashions and funky tunes. Sing Street charms audiences with its innocent awkwardness, and authentically portrays the bittersweet nature of first love.
A master of the modern movie-musical, Carney broke into the scene in 2007 with the captivating Dublin-set Once. Made on a shoestring budget, the film’s heartwarming charm propelled it to earn numerous accolades and win over critics worldwide. His second feature, 2013’s Begin Again, was a star-studded Hollywood success, yet lacked an emotional punch. With Sing Street, Carney returns to his Irish roots and refutes the label of “sellout” by creating a film that comes from a profoundly personal place. Regardless of time, space, or scale, Carney’s films share the same belief that music can bring us together, and give us hope.
The film’s plot is as simple as its tagline: “Boy meets girl. Girl unimpressed. Boy starts band.” It follows Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a 15-year-old who is transferred from his private school to a rough inner-city Christian school when the recession of the 1980s affects his parents’ finances. There, he encounters bullies and an authoritative headmaster, but his luck turns around when he meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an aspiring model he instantly becomes smitten with. He lies to her about casting her in a music video for his nonexistent band, and when she accepts, he gets a motley crew of teenaged musicians together to form the band Sing Street. When the tunes start flowing, the band begins to find their voice, and Conor falls in love.
Sing Street’s greatest merit is its duality. The film strikes a perfect balance between familiarity and novelty, hope and despair, love and heartbreak. For every upbeat rock song the band writes, a gloomy ballad is on the horizon: for every success Conor encounters, something else in his life seems to disintegrate. At one point in the film, Raphina tells Conor that love is “happy-sad.” The characters spend some time trying to unpack this, but the best definition is the one we get from Conor’s older brother Brendon (Jack Reynor). He puts on a record by The Cure, and the opening notes of “Inbetween Days” start to play. This film is like a Cure song: a melancholic tune you can’t help but dance to. Growing up is a happy-sad experience, and Sing Street gets it.
The film’s characters are so well-written and their quirks so charmingly detailed that quality eclipses the importance of originality. Carney breathes new life into classic coming-of-age tropes like bullies, problematic parents, and strict authority figures. Conor’s older brother Brendon is his musical guru as well as a college dropout who stays at home getting high all day. But he is a more complex version of the wise role model archetype that populates films about the teenage experience. Brendon is intelligent yet pretentious, proud yet jealous of his brother’s accomplishments. Most importantly, he has his own backstory and aspirations beyond just guiding Conor’s journey.
Similarly, dream girl Raphina and school bully Barry (Ian Kenny) exist for reasons beyond being Conor’s object of affection and designated tormentor, respectively. We get a glimpse behind their tough exteriors into the broken homes and abusive parents that shaped these characters. Sing Street subverts genre clichés and acknowledges what many coming-of-age films don’t: that everyone goes through private struggles, and sometimes they harm others not necessarily for their own self-interest, but as a consequence of their inability to cope.
The film’s soundtrack is key to Carney’s recreation of the era. As Conor discovers artists like The Cure, Joe Jackson, and Hall & Oates, Sing Street’s original songs emulate these influences. Iconic, era-defining tracks are combined with original songs to paint the soundscape of the ’80s and form a soundtrack worth revisiting.
The band goes full ’80s when they shoot the video for their Duran Duran-inspired track “The Riddle of the Model.” Conor sings in an overly theatrical voice over synth solos and Oriental riffs. The band wears velvet suits and pirate shirts while sporting guyliner. This scene, like the rest of the film, is self-aware in its parody of the cheesiness and ridiculousness of ’80s music and fashion. The film never takes its nostalgia too seriously, unafraid to make fun of the era’s more questionable trends, and look back on the ’80s with a judgmental fondness.
Unlike many nostalgia films, Sing Street does not portray a romanticized version of the past. Ireland is struck by economic recession, Conor’s parents’ marriage is falling apart, and he and his band are stuck in a “shithole” of a school. Yet naïve promises of moving to London or finding commercial success are scattered throughout the film. The film is carried forward by an innocent optimism that suggests the characters are on the cusp of something great. When asked to describe his musical style, Conor says: “I’m a futurist. Like, no nostalgia.” Sing Street elicits nostalgia for a time when the future looked promising.
The film also elicits nostalgia for a shared experience of youth. Whether or not you came of age during the ’80s, Sing Street will make you reminisce on simpler times at school with your friends, discovering music, and falling in love for the first time. It is a rare gem in the genre of nostalgia films that tells a story so universal, its temporal setting does not confine its relatability.
All in all, the film is a beautiful tribute to ’80s music and the coming-of-age experience. It turns coming-of-age conventions on their heads and speaks to the teenager in all of us with its happy-sadness. A small film with a lot of heart, Sing Street will make you laugh, cry, and wish you were in a band.