Sing Street (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : First Music – and First Love

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“Sing Street” is a small but sweet musical movie with lots of charm and energy. While its musical period background is not that familiar to me, I was amused and entertained by its superlative soundtrack consisting of old and new songs, and I also enjoyed its sincere coming-of-age tale full of colorful characters I came to like and care about more at the end of the movie.

The story is set in Dublin, 1985, when many people in Ireland struggled with a local economic depression as shown from the archival footage in the opening scene. After Robert (Aidan Gillen) becomes unemployed and his wife Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) gets paid less than before, they frankly tell their three children Brendan (Jack Reynor), Ann (Kelly Thornton), and Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) that they have to save money as much as possible now, and that means Conor is going to be transferred from his private school to a cheaper public school.

Conor’s reluctant first day at the Synge Street Christian Brothers School is not very pleasant to say the least. The school looks like a wildlife jungle with many unruly adolescent boys, and he soon finds himself targeted for bullying. In addition, just because of a minor attire regulation, he makes a bad impression to Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley), the stern, constipated school principle who reminds me of those oppressive, hypocritical pricks in Dickens novels.

But then he comes upon what may be his first love. At the front gate of the school, he notices a girl around his age standing across the street. Her name is Raphina (Lucy Boynton), and she is hoping to go to London and start her model career there someday. Conor naturally wants to impress this attractive girl who looks more mature and sophisticated than him or other boys in the school, so he lies to her that he has a rock band – and he even suggests that she should appear in a music video his band is going to make.

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After Raphina accepts his offer, Conor needs to have his band as soon as possible, and, fortunately, he gets helps sooner than expected. Darren (Ben Carolan), who becomes Conor’s first friend in the school as someone to help dealing with bullying, quickly assumes his role as a talent scout and manager, and they soon gather four additional band members: Eamon (Mark McKenna), a nerdy wunderkind who can deftly handle many different instruments and usually has his pet bunnies around him; Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), the only African boy in the school; and Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice), who volunteer as bassist and drummer shortly after they come across a recruitment notice on the school board.

While Conor’s assembled band, named Sing Street, is taking its first steps, Conor is encouraged and guided by his older brother Brendan, a laid-back college dropout willing to teach his little brother everything he knows about rock and roll. He recommends Conor to listen to his precious LP albums, and he also advises Conor to search for his own music rather than merely absorbing and imitating many popular rock bands out there.

Supported by his brother and motivated by his love toward Raphina, Conor makes a few songs with Eamon, and we get a funny and touching scene when they and other band members clumsily try to make a music video with Raphina, who turns out to be more cooperative and resourceful than she seemed at first. While their amateurish final result certainly looks rough and tacky to our amusement, their unadulterated enthusiasm is evident from their raw musical performance at the corner of a neighborhood alley, and their hilariously corny band attires begin to look a bit endearing as they become more confident about themselves as well as their music.

Besides decorating the soundtrack with various pop songs from the 1980s, the director/writer John Carney and his co-composer Gary Clark provide a number of original songs to be performed by Conor and his band members in the movie, which are suitably and effectively used as the crucial parts of its narrative. While most of musical performance scenes in the film are grounded in plain realism, they are presented with infectious spirits and genuine emotions to engage us, and we do not mind the sudden insertion of an exhilarating song and dance scene unfolded at the school auditorium.

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Carney cast a bunch of young unknown performers for his film, and they look believable as amateur musician characters in their unadorned ensemble acting. As the modest center of the movie, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is likable in his earnest performance, and he and his co-star Lucy Boynton click together well along the relationship development between their characters. As Conor’s band members, Ben Carolan, Mark McKenna, Percy Chamburuka, Conor Hamilton, and Karl Rice are engaging with each own personality, and Ian Kenny is fine as a school bully with understandable low self-esteem.

The movie also pays attentions to several adult characters at the fringe of the story. While Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy bring considerable humanity to Conor’s increasingly estranged parents, Lydia McGuinness plays a kind art teacher in contrast to the firm, heartless presence of Don Wycherley. In case of Jack Reynor, a promising actor who is as amiable as Chris Pratt, he steals the show as his character comes to show more complex sides behind his goofy slacker appearance. As a sort of father figure to his little brother, Brendan is happy to see Conor maturing with his own passion, but that also reminds him of how disappointing and wasteful his own life has been for years, and Reynor is very good when Brendan confides his conflicted feelings to his brother during one of their private moments.

After the unexpected critical/commercial success of “Once” (2007), Carney tried something more conventional in “Begin Again” (2013), which was enjoyable with nice songs but not so memorable compared to that enduring likability of “Once”. With its youthful heart and soul reminiscent of Alan Parker’s “The Commitments” (1991), “Sing Street” is a welcoming return to form for Carney, and this will be a refreshing experience for you especially if you yearn for any entertaining respite from the bombastic Hollywood blockbuster season.

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