Film Discussion

Sing Street (2016) – Music in the Movies

Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics. 

On the basis of Sing Street and his previous work on Once and Begin Again, it might be safe to say that there is no other film director working today that captures the thrilling sense of writing and making music in the manner that John Carney does. Whether it’s the smaller intimate workings of Once or the more overtly Hollywood feel of Begin Again, Carney captures creativity as it pertains to music in a way that very few other directors have captured.

Maybe it’s because his films are original pieces, aren’t biopics, and have a sense of the personal. Sing Street is no exception. After working on a grander Hollywood production (albeit one that still felt very much his own), Carney returns to the streets of Dublin and to a film that might be better of being described as The Teen Commitments.

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Alan Parker’s adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel is a wonderful film, one that is very much Dublin flavoured (and one I regrettably opted not to cover for Music in the Movies in order to save time). While Parker’s film was a characteristically gritty one, and also characteristic for Doyle one that is entertainingly foul-mouthed, Carney manages to get a combination of whimsy and Dublin grit into his coming of age story. It even pays a small tribute to Parker’s film by casting Maria Doyle Kennedy.

Sing Street is not a fantasy film, but it is one that, like its characters, finds much comfort in the fantasy of music, and that period of time when one is a teenager and no longer a child, but still might find a moment to wonder what it might be like to be the biggest music star in the world. Set in the 1980s, the film unsurprisingly harkens back lovingly to a time dominated by the influx of the New Romantic pioneers at the time, such as The Cure, A-ha, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. The main cast of characters, all wonderfully played by its young cast, not only find so much love in the music but in the aesthetic of the clothing, the style and even the amount of make-up and eye-shadow that so many male members of the band proudly displayed.

© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

Being set in Ireland in the 1980s, and having lead character Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) finding himself being transferred to a Christian Brothers school in Synge Street (yes, the title is a play on words), there is a reminder that the world of reality rarely matches the imaginative gloss and fantasy that comes from a world of writing lyrics, composing and being stylish. As someone who hails from Northern Ireland, I can tell you that stories have always been rife about the harsh methods and punishments concocted by its teachers, not to mention it being caught up in historical investigations of abuse.

Sing Street has its moments of wonderfully imaginative musical sequences but it never shies away from the life of a child during the period of having to go into such an environment, such as the catalyst incident involving Conor’s shoes and, later on, when he is caught wearing makeup and has it forcibly removed. The end credits make the note that the school is very different today, but its depiction on screen here is a stinging note of reality to so much of the daydream air going on around it.

© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

The core cast of players finds much to love and cherish. Where Once was a tender love story of two people who could never be, and Begin Again brilliantly ignored having its two leads end up together in a traditional sense, Sing Street is very much the all encompassing love story that Carney has been building up to with his musicals. At its basic level, it’s a boy-meets-girl story, even doing what Once avoided and building up to a happily-ever-after climax of sorts that plays into the more fantastic leanings that are just hovering over the periphery of the narrative.

Yes, Lucy Boynton’s character of Raphina sometimes skirts around the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ type of characterisation, but as he showed with Begin Again, Carney is smart at gently playing with tropes and expectations. While one might view the ending as being too fanciful, it plays elegantly into how it combines realism and fantasy to tender effect, and perhaps in the end becomes something of an opposite mirror image to the more realistic tendencies of Once.

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At its core, this is a coming of age drenched in a love of 80s music and pop culture (its biggest showstopping tune ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ is inspired by Back to the Future), and one that is very much about the importance and benefits of escapism. It’s not a mere fantasy and its characters are not unrealistic; they are very much aware of the world around them and are confronted by frequently harsh life problems, but there is always the possibility of something better around the corner, even if one finds it by escaping their real lives for just a brief moment.

There is the possibility of a better tomorrow for both Conor and Raphina, and the final scene is as large scale a sequence as Carney has created up to this point in his career. Where Begin Again avoided the obvious trappings and Once very much played the realistic emotional card, Sing Street leans into a more overtly pleasing ending that is maybe not the most realistic thing for the movie to do, but it still carries emotional weight and you come to care so much for these characters that it’s an ending you’re positively happy to go along with.

A perfect film indeed.

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