Director John Carney recaptures Irish beat

by Tim Pompey
Sing Street
Directed by: John Carney 
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton,
Jack Reynor, Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, including strong language and some bullying behavior, a suggestive image, drug material and teen smoking. 
1 hr. 46 min.

Director John Carney loves music. Why else would he present us with little gems like Once and Begin Again? And now, for his third installment, there’s Sing Street, an Irish ’80s soundtrack wrapped up in a love story and tied together by young dreams of rock and roll.

You need not worry about Carney going to the well once too often. He also happens to be a good writer and knows how to craft a story. In this case, funny, tuneful and romantic. What, you ask? Haven’t we had enough rock and roll romance already? Well, Carney certainly doesn’t think so, and it turns out he’s right.

Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a 15-year-old boy who’s just starting to explore pop music . . . and girls. It’s 1985 in Dublin and MTV has conquered Ireland. Conor and his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) are avid fans of the music show Top of the Pops. Some of you will remember Duran Duran being hotter than fire. Remember the hair, the makeup, Rio?

Conor’s life, however, hits a snag when his upper-class parents, Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy), now in desperate financial straits, decide to take him out of his posh prep school and enroll him in a much cheaper Catholic school called Synge Street. 

From the Ritz to the poorhouse, Conor’s schoolmates are bullies and beasts and the priests aren’t much better. For violating the school’s black shoe policy, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley) forces Conor to remove his brown shoes and walk in his socks the rest of the day. As we soon learn, these Brothers are tough.

Looking for a way to attract girls, Conor meets a redheaded shrimp of a boy named Darren (Ben Carolan) who insightfully explains the link between girls and rock and roll. At that moment, standing across the street is the lovely Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a 16-year-old, dolled-up mystery with an attitude. Conor takes a chance and crosses the street. On a whim, he invites her to be in his band’s music video and she agrees.

Only one problem. Conor doesn’t have a band. He can barely sing or play a guitar. Still, off he goes with Darren in tow to make it happen. Rock and roll. Always got to be a girl in there somewhere. Sing Street is born.

While Sing Street is a loving tribute to rock and roll romance, it also has some bite without being too maudlin. Carney writes and directs a tight story that incorporates the Lalors’ difficult marriage, the troubled older brother Brendan, and Conor’s bewilderment about love, without losing faith in the dream. 

In particular, Walsh-Peelo as Conor eases engagingly from nubile singer to punk performer, Reynor as Brendan is an A-1 rock philosopher, and Boynton as Raphina is so attractive, her face seems to emanate off the screen. You hardly notice when the syrupy ending arrives. It makes sense. Love and rebellion and big dreams fit together hand in glove or, in this case, inside a boat.

But the star of this film is really the music. The bands from the ’80s: The Cure, A-ha, The Clash, Hall and Oates, Joe Jackson, Spandau Ballet and The Jam. There are also great new tunes from ’80s veteran songwriter Gary Clark, the man behind Conor’s music. There’s even a special performance track by Adam Levine.

Carney has a way of digging deep and letting you see how the soul grows music. The ragtag group Sing Street starts with a whimper and ends with a bang as they run Brother Baxter out of the gym. It’s all part of a fantasy that Carney seems to know so well. Boy meets girl. Fingers meet guitar. Drums fire up. Bass rolls. Just can’t stop that pop-pop . . . pop muzik.