When viewing a film, I often ask myself if it is merely enough to witness someone or something perform simply well. Are Michael Bay’s maniacal explosions and sometimes muddled messages “enough,” knowing he does it well? Should I be satisfied with a fine little potboiler like 10 Cloverfield Lane even if it didn’t entirely deliver the same chills (or mythos) of its sister film from 2008?
In most cases, my answer to questions like these is often “yes;” that only solidifies upon viewing Sing Street, the delightful new film from Irish writer-director John Carney. Carney burst into the public eye in 2006 with Once, a pleasantly lo-fi picture about wayward buskers (played by real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) that won an Oscar for the stunning song “Falling Slowly.” In 2014, he re-emerged with the similarly staged Begin Again, a character piece featuring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley as musical partners and another killer Oscar-nominated song (“Lost Stars,” written by Gregg Alexander, onetime song doctor and mastermind behind the New Radicals).
Sing Street takes the best parts of both films—engaging and little known performers, a no-frills directorial style, affection for Ireland and maniacally catchy music—and assembles them in a way that showcases what Carney does well. It may be his most satisfying work yet, even if it suffers a few of the pitfalls of its predecessors.
In Dublin in 1985, with the economy crumbling, a fractured family sends its youngest son Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) to a state school. Desperate to forget about his troubles—parents on the cusp of divorce, the usual teenage growing pains, a cruel Christian clergyman for a principal—he lies to a pretty, mysterious girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) that he wants her to star in a music video for his as-yet nonexistent band. Collecting new friends and influences from both Top of the Pops and his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor)’s advice and killer record collection, Conor founds the film’s titular band and comes of age before our very eyes.
Carney shot Once (and, to a lesser extent, Begin Again) almost guerrilla style, keeping the camera at bay while his actors and locations did what they needed to do. He’s in similar form here, only sparingly showcasing the simple, rough-hewn beauty of Dublin’s council flats and rocky coastline. Even a magical fantasy sequence, featuring some of the best MTV-era video tropes, eschews the kind of panache a Hollywood director would give it, favoring low, tight angles to sweeping dolly shots.
It’s that simple but effective filmmaking that Carney’s good at. So, too, is he amazing at coaxing brilliant performances out of his relatively unknown cast. Walsh-Peelo practically grows up on screen as Conor, who just wants, as most teen boys do, to temper his wild teenage emotions in a way that feels right to him. Boynton as Raphina avoids the broadest strokes of the manic pixie dream girl tropes that a lesser actor would have fallen prey to, adding emotional resonance to her somewhat token inspirational role. Conor’s mates, including nerdy instrumental whiz Eamon (Mark McKenna, bearing an astounding resemblance to the author’s id) and no-nonsense juvenile manager Darren (Ben Carolan) all get their moments to shine, allowing for no dropped character moments. And Reynor, whose stubble and messy long hair unwittingly evokes Seth Rogen and completely makes you forget about his role as the hunky boyfriend in Transformers: Age of Extinction, is brilliant as Conor’s gruff but caring older brother, whose guidance hides deep regrets of his own.
Once and Begin Again lived (never died) off the strength of their incredible original music. Sing Street, amazingly, exponentially increases the musical power of Carney’s filmography. Not only does he pick the right diagetic music to capture the essence of European pop in the mid-‘80s (a booming export, with acts like Duran Duran, The Cure and Joe Jackson in full swing), but the boys of Swing Street create effortlessly catchy pop gems that do a tremendous job of paying homage to those hallowed acts.
Scottish composer Gary Clark, no stranger to brilliant European pop of the era (track down his amazing pair of albums with Danny Wilson, or at least hear their sumptuous U.K. Top 5 hit “Mary’s Prayer”), worked with Carney on creating all the tracks, and deserves the same attention from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that Once and Begin Again did. (The sweet “Up” and the Hall & Oates-ian “Drive It Like You Stole It” are just two of the standouts.) Even the score hides some gems, like a beautiful, subtle piano rendition of a-ha’s “Take on Me” during a romantic scene between Conor and Raphina. (The film’s finale even features a reunion between Carney, Hansard and Levine on the tender “Go Now,” which is once again wildly superior to most of Maroon 5’s last two records.)
Sing Street is not without similar faults to Carney’s other films. There is a running sense of wish fulfillment that edges out much of the realest conflict, and a vaguely ambiguous yet neatly tied-up ending that apes the denouements of Once and Begin Again a little too well. But, as with Carney’s other musical love letters, it’s clear that he’ll keep doing well at what he does best.
And with so much to love about Sing Street, I’d say that is more than enough.
Sing Street is now playing in limited release.