John Carney has a style. Every director does, but for John Carney, you just need to know the storyline to know it’s his. Two people, one a struggling/aspiring musician, the other a producer type or musician, both hurting, come together to repair their lives through music. Then they go their separate ways and/or remain just friends. That’s the formula to Carney’s biggest hits, Once and Begin Again. Once was magic, the little indie that could, while Begin Again, despite being enjoyable, was criticized for being over-produced (and in a little bit of karma, a movie that criticized musicians for selling out, was criticized for selling out to Hollywood). So Carney has returned to his roots, back to Ireland, down to the very school he went to as a kid. Sing Street is out to reclaim what was lost. So Carney has a style. But can he take that style and apply it to a different story.
Sing Street begins in 1985’s Dublin with 14-year old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). His parents are on the verge of splitting up, there are money problems, and he’s sent to Synge Street, a Christian Brothers school where Conor is tormented. But one day, after he spies a beautiful girl (Lucy Boynton) who says she’s a model across the street, he decides to start a band so he can woo her. Thus begins Sing Street, the band he forms with classmates. The girl, Raphina, agrees to be in their 80’s-tastic videos, and the two start working out the various problems in their lives.
Sing Street has a lot of different stories in it, making it a messy film. There isn’t a lot of distinction between what is a side plot and the actual plot. Is it a coming of age story? A story about Conor’s family problems? A story about him and his brother (Jack Reynor)? A love story between him and Raphina? A story about him overcoming trying circumstances? It’s all of these. But it works in a way, because life is messy, too.
One thing I appreciated was that the circumstances Conor, Raphina, and their families find themselves in are never romanticized. In Begin Again, the struggles of the two main characters seem nicely packaged in a way that were easily solved by the end of the movie. Once is better, showng that music and friendship helps, but life struggles are not something that can be resolved in two hours. With a movie like Sing Street, which could have easily fallen into an 80’s nostalgia trap, the character’s hardships could have come across as rosy. They never are. It is painful to watch Conor’s parents fall apart, and him be bullied at school. However, the movie is still very hopeful. It is, like Conor once describes his music, happy-sad. Things are hard, but we’re going to power through it. I think that is a very commendable message.
As for the constant peril of falling into an 80’s nostalgia trap, it never does. My dad explained to me after the movie that the movie made him appreciate in a fresh way the chord changes and creativity shown during that decade of music. Sure, there was weird hair and bad fashion and terrible music, but there were some good things, too. Carney, being so close to the source material, made the depiction of the era and setting very grounded. The city seemed lived in, the settings seemed familiar to the camera in a way that they didn’t in Begin Again, but did in Once.
Regarding similarities with Once, Sing Street has a lot of them. There are a few direct scenes almost ripped from the screenplay of Once. Those aren’t quite welcome. What is welcomed is the naturalistic performances, especially by the two leads, and good music. While not as memorable as Once, I still went and listened to the soundtrack on Spotify- “Drive it Like You Stole It,” being a stand-out. These movies are consistent, if for no other reason than an original song Oscar nomination.
Going back to your roots seemed to have done the trick for John Carney. Sing Street, while not perfect, is an improvement from Begin Again. It reaches high and tickles the ceiling. It is extremely enjoyable, and feels very personal. Carney, with a little more work, can take a good style and apply it to a new story.
One last thing to think about, as we possibly draw a close on this musical trilogy. Once was about how music can bring redemption. Begin Again was about how music can bring transformation. And Sing Street is about how music can bring empowerment. Which, if you think about it, these themes go in order.
But I’m calling it now- the next Carney movie is going to be about a rock star and the relationship with her tour manager, and how they start using music to give to charities. How music can bring about change. Let’s see if I’m right.