A well-written song can resonate several pitches in a fast row, much like movies by Irish director John Carney. His Oscar-winning debut hit “Once” gave us a pair of songwriting collaborators on the Emerald Isle making sweet music together, having some good laughs and falling sort of in love — the imaginative holy trinity of Carney’s creative powers.
His follow-up “Begin Again” repeated that winning formula with a Manhattan background and bigger budget. Now he’s delivering his trifecta again. “Sing Street” is a younger, entertainingly skewed take on his favorite topics, a lightweight coming of age delight stuffed with irresistible ’80s pop hits and scads of fine original tunes, too.
In three features, Carney has made his personal greatest hits album.
Conor (played by authentically appealing Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a teenager growing up in Dublin circa 1985. It’s a period when new bands like Spandau Ballet, the Cure, Duran Duran and A-ha are rising up the charts and the economy is tanking. His parents’ income (like their marriage) is shrinking, so to maintain appearances they shift him to the least expensive parochial school they can find. The tough headmaster (Don Wycherley) runs it like a reformatory, and the feisty playground bully threatens to thump the daylights out of the new boy.
The only benefit to attending is that it’s next to the home of a reserved young lovely named Raphina (Lucy Boynton, whose DNA must contain camera-magnetism genes). With her skintight denims and teased hair, she’s a wannabe fashion model who doesn’t have much interest in schoolboys a year below her age. But when Conor tries to impress by calling himself Cosmo and pretending to have a band, she gives him a brief second look. Perhaps both of them are too cool for school?
Aiming to turn his boast into reality, Conor recruits whatever classmate he can into a music group. It’s a nothing-to-lose gesture that miraculously lifts his horizon far better than he (or the audience) could have expected.
The story plays like a charming junior version of “The Commitments,” following the group as dreams come true, wishes are fulfilled and they actually become a good, unknown band.
Conor’s relationship with his cool older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), a hash-smoking wastrel with a wise, compassionate streak and a boss vinyl album collection, is one of the story’s highlights. When Conor sighs that Raphina is seeing another boyfriend, Brendon asks, “What’s he listening to?” “Genesis,” Conor says. Brendon reassures him: “No woman can truly love a man who loves Phil Collins.”
Carney peppers every scene with chuckles. “Riddle of the Model” is Conor’s first swing at a new wave love ballad, and it’s wonderfully catchy. The kids are so cheerfully committed to their endeavor that they change their wardrobes from Elvis Costello to the Cure every week and don’t care who laughs at them. Carney makes it much easier to laugh with them.