‘Sing Street’ sings from start to finish

by Andrew Kingsley | 5/16/16 5:01pm

The story of a teenager forming a band to woo his crush sounds like the cliché of a shirtless guitar player playing to fawning fans on a college quad. Yet in director John Carney’s expert hands (he also directed “Once” (2007) and “Begin Again” (2013)), the intersection of music, love and hardship once again becomes fruitful grounds for exploration. His latest, “Sing Street” (2016), applies his formula to troubled Irish teenagers and breathes his quintessential exuberance into the unlikeliest of places.

Fortunately, the film never descends into “High School Musical” (2006) theatrics and maintains a heartfelt authenticity. Perhaps this comes from Carney’s choice to only cast non-professional actors in the lead roles. The songs feel real, felt, not evoked through programs or methods. The dance numbers aren’t expertly choreographed with backflips and perfect costumes, but comically low-tech and rag tag. The eponymous band’s homemade music video for their debut song “The Riddle of the Model” includes a kimono, vampire fangs, a cowboy costume and an excess of guyliner, all recorded in low-def VCR. Raised on MTV, these boys style their sound and look on the latest hits, switching from punk to new wave to pop, all attracting the disdain of their austere, violent Catholic school principle, Mr. Baxter. The bleached hair, eye shadow and tinted glasses don’t go well with the school’s motto: “Act Manly.” “Says the guy in the black dress,” piths Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo).

Growing up in inner city Dublin, Conor finds escape through songwriting from his parents’ collapsing marriage and his tumultuous new public school, Synge Street CBS. While this sounds like a traditional angsty teen, no-one-understands-me tale, Conor shows a remarkable resilience — “grit” in modern terms — when dealing with these hardships. Instead of sinking into melancholic solipsism, Conor converts his despair into music. In one of the most suave pick-up scenes (guys, take note), Conor convinces the local dreamgirl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), that he leads a band. Conor then scrambles around the neighborhood to form a band and woo his muse. The scheme miraculously works, and soon “Sing Street” (far better than Conor’s recommendation, “La Vie”) is churning out cover after cover of 80s hits. The film’s tempo and the band’s energy are infectious; even the school bully cannot resist.

The film coasts on its musical core, returning intermittently to foot-tapping, finger-snapping montages of “Maneater,” “Rio” and “Town Called Malice,” as well as the film’s own originals including “Drive It Like You Stole It” and “To Find You.” You may just find yourself downloading the soundtrack after the credits roll. Yet what brings the film to another level is how Carney imbues a near improvisational realism to his characters, a trait rarely found in musicals which are inherently theatrical and hyperbolic. Moreover, the characters face the very real effects of Ireland’s economic downturn, where daily ships leave the Irish coast for England’s more promising shores. Conor’s father drinks himself into oblivion between shouting matches with his wife, while Conor’s drop-out brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) shapes Conor into the musician he never could be. Within decaying Dublin, Sing Street remains a beacon of hope; when success is measured in escape, how does one find life in the crumbling neighborhoods?

A testament to misfits, rock n’ roll, brotherhood and downright good filmmaking, “Sing Street” is a transformative dose of winning spirit. Like in “Annie,” we get the hard knock life, but the band’s anthem would be “Today!” instead of tomorrow. They are their own salvation, music and applause their Daddy Warbucks. In the era of helicopter parents, “screenagers” and micromanaged schedules, this is exactly the film from which young students should take inspiration. What was the last song written about a STEM class?

Rating: 9/10

“Sing Street” is now playing at the Nugget Theaters at 4:15 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.

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