There’s a deep vein of schlocky sentiment running through the heart of Sing Street, the treacly sort that could seem off putting, all cloying and sweet. But it’s balanced by an underlying darkness, a sense of real problems that all the feel good anthems in the world can’t fix, leaving this more salted caramel than sickly sweet.
The almost impossibly baby-faced Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (if names could kill…) is the 15-year-old Conor, staring down the barrel of a few years ahead in a vicious, grimy Catholic school in ‘80s Dublin as his family’s financial fortunes fade. Hoping to impress a girl (why else?) he recruits a few of his new classmates to form a band, all in the name of getting her to star in their homemade music videos.
Music is right at the core of the film. The band’s influences flit from Duran Duran to the Cure, and back via Spandau Ballet, and the soundtrack boasts a genre-straddling smorgasbord of the ‘80s’ finest. Those influences pay off in the equally diverse original songs the group performs, a selection of tight poppy numbers that any teenage band would be proud to call their own. They’re just rough enough around the edges to be believable (though the band’s ropey music videos are also a constant delight), though there are a couple of duds, especially as the film enters its final stretch.
There’s no shortage of laughs in Sing Street, both from the aforementioned agonisingly cringe-inducing music videos and a star turn from Jack Reynor as Conor’s older brother Brendan, who serves as the movie’s musical guru. The script is rewardingly willing to take a risks in its jokes, not least as it confronts 1980s Dublin’s attitude to black people head on in a few eyebrow-raising moments.
When Sing Street’s not busy cracking jokes or cranking out hits, it’s carried along by kitchen-sink realism, grappling with – or at least gesturing at – economic stagnation, family breakdown, child abuse and more, much through Conor’s relationship with his crush Raphina (Lucy Boynton).
Director John Carney offers a grey vision of Dublin, all dreary stonework and washed out colours, right down to the school uniforms. Top of the Pops – and, as the film progresses, the band’s own videos – offer the only vibrancy in the world, the only hint of excitement and aspiration, that there might actually be something in life worth living for.
Carney can’t quite resist the urge to give the audience the climactic school disco performance finale or the dramatic declarations of love, but it’s a credit to the script’s wit and weight that these moments mostly feel earned, even through the schmaltz. Sure, this is well-trod territory – more covers band than true original – but when it’s this much fun, and balanced out by its darker moments, it’s all too easy to just go along for the ride.
This is infectious fun then, a riotous, teenage pop song, with all the angst, heartache, and jubilance that involves.
Words by Dominic Preston