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Sundance Review: ‘Once’ Director John Carney’s Joyously Entertaining ‘Sing Street’

Sundance Review: 'Once' Director John Carney's Joyously Entertaining 'Sing Street'

You know the problem with most fictional rock bands? They don’t write good bridges. Whenever a motley group of kids in a movie or TV show come together to make music (and to woo the opposite sex), whoever’s in charge of the original soundtrack usually cooks up decent hooks, yet has a harder time coming up with strong verses or memorable mid-song changes. Pretend pop stars mostly play jingles —they don’t knock out realistic chart hits.

READ MORE: The 30 Most Anticipated Films Of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

The band in John Carney’s “Sing Street” is an exception. Even the first song they write, a fairly goofy novelty number called “Riddle of the Model,” has an unusually complex structure for something that a bunch of working-class Irish teens would have worked up in an afternoon in 1985. As the story plays out, every couple of days the group’s frontman Conor (played by newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) pops by the flat of his guitarist Eamon (Mark McKenna), and the two of them write another fully realized pop-rock composition inspired by the Cure, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran or one of the other post-punk groups that appeared routinely in the U.K. in the 1980s. The music in “Sing Street” is so terrific that it strains credulity —it’s only a problem if moviegoers would rather watch 105 minutes of sophomoric garage-rock, rather than the marvelously catchy tunes by Carney and veteran folk-pop musician Gary Clark.

Carney’s best-known for writing and directing “Once,” a low-budget film about a talented Dublin street musician (played by The FramesGlen Hansard) that came out of nowhere back in 2007 and bowled over Sundance audiences, made a lot money at the box office, won an Academy Award, and inspired a hit Broadway musical. The director followed that up with “Begin Again” (originally known as “Can a Song Save Your Life?” when it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013), starring Keira Knightley as a singer-songwriter who gets dumped by her rock star boyfriend and responds by recording her own brilliant album in the streets of New York City. What Carney’s first two musicals have in common is that their songs emerge naturally from the situation and were performed with the spontaneity and immediacy of a impromptu concert.

“Sing Street” is a little different, in that both the songs and the movie are more polished. The premise fictionalizes some of Carney’s own experiences as a teenager in Dublin, where he attended a tough Catholic school during an era when a depressed labor market was driving a lot of Irish folk to move to England. At the start of the film, Conor’s constantly bickering, underemployed parents (played by Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) pull him out of his posh secondary school to save the family some money. At the new school, in between getting beaten up by skinheads and yelled at by priests, Conor forms a band called Sing Street, mainly to impress an older girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who says she’s days away from shipping off to London to become a fashion model. He asks her to be in one of Sing Street’s videos before she goes, and then keeps coming up with more music so that he can spend more time with her. After several months, the band has enough of a repertoire to headline a school dance, and, truth be told, a set strong enough to get them booked into almost any rock club in Dublin.

This movie though isn’t really about the rise of a hot new band. Aside from Raphina, no one pays much attention to Sing Street: not club owners, not booking agents, and not label executives. Instead, the story is about Conor pulling himself up out bleak circumstances with the help of his hash-smoking guru of an older brother Brendan (wonderfully played by Jack Reynor). Brendan hands Conor stacks of albums as “homework” —everything from Hall & Oates to The Jam— and teaches him that the key to greatness in any endeavor is to risk being ridiculed. Carney has a lot of fun playing with mid-1980s pop fashion, with the band changing its look from week to week and song to song. But he’s ultimately making a movie that uses the real social problems of his home country as the backdrop for uplift.

Frankly, the film’s plot is a little pat. It’s “boy meets girl” crossed with “underdog makes good,” and both its love interest and its oppressive Catholic school milieu are fairly pro forma. Still, as with “Once” and “Begin Again,” Carney makes great use of real locations, showing these boys singing their songs in cramped rooms, school auditoriums, back alleys and by the sea. And those songs are pretty great… maybe a little too great.

But then, the mark of a top-shelf rock ’n’ roll movie is how well it can capture the element of wish fulfillment. It’s entirely possible to hear the meticulously arranged and performed versions of Sing Street’s tunes as just figments of Conor’s imagination. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Conor plans out a video shoot that goes horribly awry, and Carney quickly cuts away from the dire reality to what Conor had in his head, because the latter is also “real” in its way. What makes “Sing Street” such a joyously entertaining film (besides the songs) is that it thinks the best of its characters, and it presents them the way they’d like to think of themselves. When a kid in Dublin in 1985 picked up a guitar, he wanted to be The Edge. Carney, god bless him, lets it be so. [B+]

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