Nine years and two more films after Once, it’s appropriate now more than ever to admit something – John Carney is making a career off making the same film. His micro-budget almost-romance of failing musicians that was peppered with painfully yearning songs filmed in Dublin music stores and street corners (Once) became a bigger budget non-romance of a struggling musician and drunkard record executive finding a second chance in an album recorded on the streets of New York City (Begin Again), which has now become another almost-romance set on the streets of Dublin and to the pure sounds of music unfolding in the heat of the moment. Did I make this sound like an issue? Apologies if I did. Carney’s tendency to revisit the same concept of struggling creatives meeting and getting lost in the music and each other for a beautiful moment in time would be tedious if they didn’t get the two crucial ingredients of making the film fresh so very right – the people and the music.
Despite denying it ceaselessly, in Sing Street, a back-to-basics homecoming of sorts after bright lights, big city success, Carney is not only mining his own foolproof formula but also gathering inspiration from Alan Parker’s quintessential The Commitments, which saw nearly a dozen white twentysomethings stuck in recession-era Dublin form a soul cover band. Dublin in ruins from The Troubles, they looked to the likes of James Brown and Aretha Franklin to find kinship in their lives of depression and oppression. Their local fame, found over a bunch of bar and community centre benefit gigs, is short-lived. They disband after believing they’ve been duped by the promise of a visit from a record executive (spoiler alert: he shows up), the moment of music melting away back into the sad reality of life; an event that gives the film the satisfying ending for its downbeat reality.
While the band certainly are fonder of each other in Sing Street than in Parker’s film and ultimately see out the film’s conclusion, the climate is no less depressing. Fifteen-year-old Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo)’s parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy, backup singer Natalie in The Commitments, natch; and Game of Thrones’s Aidan Gillen) announce that due to their dire financial straits, they’ve decided to move him to the local Catholic school in order to save some money. Synge Street, like all institution-esque high schools, is more akin to a jail than a school, and Connor, small with an immaculate head of brown hair and a private school accent, quickly becomes a punching bag for students and priests alike (the culture of abuse in the Catholic Church lingers over the film).
But Connor’s trips to school quickly find some joy when he meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton, who I must mention starred as Posy in the wonderful film adaptation of the classic children’s novel Ballet Shoes), a mysterious sixteen-year-old aspiring model who sports a neverending repertoire of outfits and lives seemingly alone in a terrace across the road from Connor’s school. She, of course, has hardships of her own. But Connor quickly falls for her, the image of sophistication that one conjures up in their youth, a tentative friendship with equal amounts of snark and disbelief forged over afternoon conversations on her front steps. Of course, he wants to get to know her more, so he tells a white lie to get there – will she star in the music video for his band?
There is of course one problem, but it is negligible in this world – he is missing the band. Helped by his new friend Darren, who is not musically inclined but instead knows the right people at the school (the only thing needed to be a successful band manager, really), he quickly assembles all the necessary members, a stretch of the film which even includes a Commitments-esque recruitment a bespectacled peer who possesses an aptitude at every instrument put in front of him. They’re gathered in a series of upbeat montages set to the likes of A-ha and The Jam, a nostalgic delight for those that were alive in the period or those that experienced it via their parents’s record collection.
But what about the songs? Like all great music, it comes from anger and desire on some level. Carney, like in his previous films, favours the process, filming writing sessions in houses and conversations between Raphina and Connor (there is, however, a prom scene that is an utter all-timer) that become inspiration for songs – To Find You, arguably the most heart-tugging ballad the film produces, is written after a heart-to-heart, and plays at a pivotal moment of realisation.
The gaps left are filled by a myriad of influences supplied by Connor’s stoner brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), who boasts an enviable record collection and knowledge and raw passion for music that makes one hope he becomes a Lester Bangs-esque maverick critic in the future, becomes his confidant. Much like the manner my (brief) eighth grade band banged out Hannah Montana and classic rock covers in equal measure, their influences are varied and colourful. Plied with Motorhead, Duran Duran, and Joe Jackson, Sing Street tries its myriad of influences on like hats, Connor sporting The Cure-esque black eye makeup and bleached hair one day before settling on The Jam-inspired suits and hats.
But Brendan’s influence in the film proves to be more than musical. Like The Commitments, Once, and Begin Again, Sing Street is about the fear to not get up and out. Carney’s strengths are still doling out the type of easy nostalgia for music-fuelled connection that are effortlessly performed by an energetic young cast, but Sing Street is more melancholic, more yearning, more mature. The climax of the film is an outburst of feelings of failure, a moment that reaches for something more heartrending than Carney has aimed for before and succeeds. The music is brief, how does one capture it forever? It’s a question answered by the final song, sung by a lower key Adam Levine – “you’re never gonna know if you don’t go now”.