Sing Street (2016)

Dir. John Carney. Starring Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor

The one-sentence synopsis of Sing Street – boy creates band on spot to impress cute girl he met – sounds like a nightmare of a mediocre screwball update. But what John Carney seems to have understood intuitively was that this is not a story about about a kid faking a band, or a kid who tries to build a band up from nothing. What makes this a really remarkable teen movie is how knowing it is about the need teenagers have to redefine themselves on their own terms. We laugh because the guys in the band show up in what are essentially five different Halloween costumes for their first music video, but we can’t help but be a little impressed: these fifteen-year-olds have written a song, taped a demo, and are filming a music video. Sing Street takes its kids seriously while they’re figuring out what they’re trying to do, and if we chuckle it’s because they’re trying out something which is equally ridiculous to whatever style we tried to throw ourselves at when we were fourteen or fifteen. It’s the definition of laughing with as opposed to laughing at.

The band changes influence rapidly as it tries to find what fits, building itself in the image and sound of Duran Duran or Depeche Mode or The Cure based on whatever Conor’s (Walsh-Peelo) big burnout brother, Brendan (Reynor) gives him as research. The band starts because Conor has fallen for Raphina (Boynton), but it doesn’t take long for Conor to figure out how to use the offer of starring roles in the band’s music videos – Raphina, who hopes to be a model, can’t turn that down – to get her to hang out with him. The band persists because of Brendan, who has dropped out of college, has no job, and smokes a bunch of weed. He takes a genuine interest in his kid brother’s life, which anyone with older siblings knows is a rare gift. He’s the one who listens to the band’s cover of “Rio” and tells Conor that he’ll never win a girl with someone else’s song. He’s the one who introduces Conor to The Cure after Raphina talks to Conor about being “happy-sad.” And it goes further than just vicarious living. The film’s absolute standout line belongs to Brendan’s analysis of why Conor has a chance with Raphina, even though she has an older boyfriend with a car. “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins,” Brendan says sagely. The film is dedicated to “brothers everywhere.” Consumed by his wife’s adultery and his failure to provide for his family during a recession, Brendan and Conor’s dad (Aiden “Littlefinger” Gillen) seems to hardly recognize his sons’ existence. Their mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is just as disenchanted and distant. Conor, like most younger brothers, lives in his older brother’s shadow. He’s cognizant to some extent of that shadow. He defers to Brendan, takes Brendan’s word on music as gospel worthy of repetition to his friends (although Conor does call James Taylor the bassist of the future, as opposed to Duran Duran’s John Taylor). But he also doesn’t realize that Brendan, before he gave up on his life, used to be a pretty good guitarist and had his own band. Brendan only vents his spleen on Conor once, and even then it’s on the same day that their parents tell their kids that they’re divorcing. All in all, Brendan is a practically perfect big brother, able to remember his own teenage years without trying to dictate what Conor does with his, and more than anyone else he gives the movie its warmth.

In 1985 the music video was at its zenith, and the “Rio” video that the boys see on Top of the Pops ignites Conor’s interest and Brendan’s aptitude for declamation. One of the most underrated elements of Sing Street is its series of homages to the music video and how it works those into important moments in the film. Occasionally they function as plot points – Conor gets his first kiss with Raphina after she just goes for it for one of their videos – but often as not they tell us something about Conor. The video for “The Riddle of the Model” is a key moment for the group, maybe more important to our understanding of them than the song itself. (That used to be a criticism of music videos, right? I seem to remember that was a thing.) Conor takes to makeup, with Raphina’s help; it’s the most interesting thing about him, really.

Conor is sort of a blank, which is fine; he’s our surrogate in the film. But he has a boldness to him, especially when the kind of androgyny that he’s pursuing is not given much patience by the average macho boy in inner-city Dublin (or by his macho headmaster, Brother Baxter). Brendan points out in the beginning of the film that the motto of the school that Conor’s being transferred to is “Act manly.” Even more than what he does at the end of the film, which in the hands of a different director might have been significantly darker, putting on makeup and dying his hair and wearing clothes that most other boys at Synge Street wouldn’t wear dead shows his personal bravery. He wants to figure out who he is; who he is at fifteen is probably a slightly happier version of Robert Smith (albeit with less tolerant people around him), and he has the guts to commit to that even when under duress from bullies great and small. If Conor is different from most teenagers, he shows it by being unwilling to bend to outside pressure, and that’s what makes him likable.

He also has the ability to take other people with him where they wouldn’t usually go. The other guys in the group aren’t down with the idea of making up for the music video, but Conor goes first and, it appears, the others follow. (Garry, the bassist, became my hero when he didn’t want to look gay by wearing makeup, but simultaneously doesn’t know his cowboy outfit, inspired by the Village People, signifies anything: “What’s gay about the Village People?”) The video they do, which again, only exists so he’ll have a chance to interact with Raphina, has the feel of a standard ’80s pop-rock video. No woman has ever been so haughty as when she appears as the token woman in such a video, and Raphina does her level best. When she blinks, you can see the lightning bolt she’s painted on her eyelid move. “I can do anything,” she tells Conor, totally deadpan. She frowns expertly, like she’s practiced it in profile. It’s no wonder that when Conor shows Brendan the video, Brendan tells him that every one of their videos has to include her; she’s the best part. It’s unfortunate that the film does not give Lucy Boynton all that much to do; indeed, the film uses her as a model much more than she does any type of modeling in the film. Just like Conor is a little blank, so too is Raphina; unfortunately, there’s a much longer history of basically blank women with Problems to Deal with in this sort of film. Conor feels like a progression in the line of boy heroes in teen flicks; as charming as Raphina is, she’s a step backwards in a film that’s ahead of the curve in so many other ways.

About half of the songs that Conor and Eamon write together get some kind of introductory scene which shows us their process, but the one that takes the longest is “The Riddle of the Model.” Here’s the thing about the songs themselves: they are not half bad. Taking the kids seriously about the things they’re serious about – never winking at Raphina’s desire to model, or Eamon’s unnatural ability to play weird instruments, or Conor’s tragically ’80s style – is met with music that is credibly written in the style of the ’80s bands which inspire them. Without that element, the whole illusion falls apart. If the band was bad, or even seemed middling, the conceit of the movie falls through. “Drive It Like You Stole It” in particular is a song that I wouldn’t mind hearing on the radio at all. It’s also the song which gets as much exposure as any other, largely because the performance of it is a music video without the setup that the film provides for other songs. I was prepared to not like what was going on at all; it looked like it was going to be an empty reference to the prom in Back to the Future, but by the end of the sequence it’s obvious that much more is going on, enough that it’s worth an overly wrought reference. It’s the only part of the film that drops completely into fantasy; everyone is dressed in their fifties best, and the Sing Street boys are in red. Raphina walks in; she’s late to the filming but she’s already in costume. She gazes up at the stage adoringly. Her older boyfriend is there too, but so is Brendan; he arrives on a motorcycle,  wearing a leather jacket the same color as the McFly vest, and he manages to expel the boyfriend from the dance. Conor’s parents are there too in costume. Everyone – including his parents – joins in a choreographed dance. What Conor wants is bound up in multiple meanings, each one of which tells us something about him.

  1. As the frontman of the band that everyone is dancing to, Conor has enough influence over everyone else to give them a good time, but at the same time is not responsible for them or their actions; he has a way to be a relentlessly positive force without leaving much room for negativity.
  2. He’s in America, which is glamorous enough, presumably. The curtains are red and blue; if you catch him at the right angle with his white shirt, there’s a strong red-white-and-blue motif, which also can stand in for England. London, the home base for most of the bands he’s listening to now, is a perfectly good alternative.
  3. The lyrics to the song match the general tone that Conor has been trying to strike; be confident, be yourself, do what you want to do, and don’t look back.
  4. Sending the action of his music video back to the ’50s might be overkill, but for a kid who describes himself as a “futurist,” this is sort of a step backward. No matter what he says, there’s a strong desire to rewind his life, or perhaps go back far enough to rewind someone else’s life…
  5. …like his parents, who are together, in step with everyone else, and having a heck of a time…
  6. …or Brendan, who has cut his hair and is on the whole looking much better than he does at home. His family members are, in short, the better versions of themselves, the people Conor wishes they would be and can only be in this fantasy. His mother smiles in this sequence, laughing sometimes. His father looks happy when usually he just looks sour. This is, not coincidentally, about the same time in the film where Conor’s parents tell him that they’re getting divorced.
  7. Raphina is there, and she is happy to see him. That would almost be enough to fulfill the fantasy, but she is responsible for a key element of it. It’s Conor’s idea to have a music video set at an American Back to the Future prom, but it’s Raphina’s to have everyone involved in a choreographed dance that everyone does in unison. Again we have evidence that Conor is a special kid; how many fifteen-year-old boys take the time to incorporate their crush’s ideas into their fantasies about them?

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