Dublin-born John Carney has worn many hats. He was the bassist for the Irish band The Frames in the early ’90s. He subsequently worked in indie film and television. (His show Bachelors Walk has been described as the most successful in Irish history.) But it wasn’t until 2007 that he truly pushed the Hibernian envelope—indeed, split it to shreds—with the tiny, scintillating gem Once. A musical romance made for less than $200,000, the film astonished critics (me, perhaps even more than most), won an Oscar for Best Song, and ultimately spawned a hit Broadway musical.
And so, in 2013, Carney attempted to replicate the formula with Begin Again, another film about a talented musical ingénue and an older male mentor who together attempt, quasi-romantically, to put together an album. (The movie might just as well have been titled Twice.) This time, though, Carney opted for a bigger budget and bigger stars (Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo), and forsook his native town for the glamour of New York—perhaps the city on Earth least in need of a musical encomium. Begin Again wasn’t a bad movie, but the subtle magic of Once was lost in trans-Atlantic translation.
I could scarcely be more delighted to report that Carney has rediscovered that magic with Sing Street, another tiny, winsome charmer set in Dublin. The year is 1985, with all that entails musically, good and (often) bad. When we first meet the protagonist, 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), he’s experimenting with song lyrics in his bedroom: “I’ll be the mechanic of your heart, and with a wrench I’ll take you apart.” Hearing his parents (the sorely underutilized Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) fight downstairs, he instead endeavors to put their violent hollering to music: “If we didn’t share a mortgage, I’d leave you.”
The family is in dire financial straits, so his parents pull Conor from the school he was attending to send him to one run by the Christian Brothers: essentially a teen penitentiary overseen by strict, possibly predatory, priests and sadistic bullies. But one day Conor meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a 16-year-old truant who lives across the street from the school. When she world-wearily informs him that she is a model with plans to move to London—the one-year difference in their ages might as well be a decade—he impulsively asks her if she’d like to star in a music video for his band.
The problem, of course, is that there is no band, and Conor himself can scarcely hold a tune or strum a guitar. But these details are overcome with enchanted efficiency. Conor’s sole friend, Darren (Ben Carolan, resembling a pint-sized Danny Partridge), imagines himself a manager and introduces Conor to quiet, sensitive Eamon (Mark McKenna), who keeps rabbits and happens to play every instrument known to humankind. The band quickly fills out like a pubescent version of The Commitments, takes the name “Sing Street” as an ironic reference to their school, Synge Street CBS—the very school Carney himself attended—and in no time they have produced their first song and amateur video, the shamelessly Duran Duranian “Riddle of the Model.” Conor, for his part, takes little time to find his voice: in the band, at school, and, most importantly, with Raphina.
And so the story unfolds, as the band cycles through its The Cure phase and its Spandau Ballet phase, hair gel waxing or waning as appropriate. The soundtrack also includes entrants from The Jam, Joe Jackson, and, if you listen closely, a gentle, piano-only version of A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” But it’s the original songs, written by Carney himself, that are the true draw here: the teen anthem “Drive It Like You Stole It,” the plaintive “To Find You,” and the intolerably infectious “Up”—which might have served as an apt title for the movie had it not already been well spoken for.
Throughout it all, Conor receives advice and encouragement, both romantic and musical, from his college-dropout older brother, Brendan (a fantastic Jack Reynor, channeling Seth Rogen). Whenever Conor is down, Brendan bucks him up with the ineffable wisdom of the stoner-sage: “Did the Sex Pistols know how to play? You don’t need to know how to play! You need to know how not to play!”
There is nothing particularly novel about the tale Carney tells, but he tells it with an uncanny combination of tenderness and joy. Endearing moments abound: three siblings dancing together to Hall & Oates’s “Maneater”; a magnificently awkward kiss over half-chewed biscuits; the magical realism of a dream prom performance; a redemption that is no less satisfying for being utterly predictable; the bygone intimacy of the cassette tape. Tucked in among these are even a few discreet references to Once: a cameo by a Hoover, another girl listening to a sad song on headphones at night.
Befitting its young subjects, Sing Street is more lightweight than Once. Pools of melancholy lurk—family breakdown, poverty, alcoholism, abuse—but the film never wades too deeply into them. The result is a giddy pop fantasy that nonetheless carries beguiling undertones of wistfulness and regret. As Raphina explains to Conor, “Your problem is you’re not happy being sad. But that’s what love is: happy-sad.” It may not be true of all love, but it’s an apt description of the particular form of love that John Carney has once again brought to life onscreen, in all its rapturous, lightheaded splendor.