'Sing Street' Review: John Carney Delivers 'Once' Again

READ MORE: John Carney Explains How the Crowd-Pleasing ‘Sing Street’ is Part of a Greater Trilogy

Writer-director John Carney caught lightning in a bottle with 2007’s lovelorn and lo-fi “Once,” and — as the title of that film so accurately predicted — his Oscar-winning success has been hard to repeat. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the one-note Irish auteur from trying. “Sing Street” is Carney’s third feature about impossibly winsome young people turning to music as the means to take control of their own lives, and its bottomless reservoir of toe-tapping charm can’t quite distract from the fact that audiences have heard this song before (twice). The heart on his sleeve has already bled dry. But if Carney’s latest jam proves that he can’t change his spots, it also shows that he knows how to learn from his mistakes. For a filmmaker so fixated on the same story, that can be a far more valuable skill. 

Striking a perfect harmony between the folksy pleasures of “Once” and the plastic corporate pap of the risible “Begin Again,” “Sing Street” finds Carney waxing nostalgic with a semi-autobiographical story that returns to his roots as a scrappy kid in Dublin circa 1985. Conor, played by newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (Nicholas Hoult 2.0) is the director’s thinly veiled proxy. Mired in a permanent autumn of grey skies, beige buildings, and red-headed bullies, he’s a teenage dreamer born into a dreary spell, and his personal Troubles are just getting started. 

As the film begins, Conor’s cash-strapped parents (“Game of Thrones” star Aiden Gillen and musician Maria Doyle Kennedy) are in the midst of telling their youngest son that he’s being transferred to the local state-school, Synge Street CBS. A real institution that counts Carney among its proud alumni, Synge Street could be described as part Catholic reformatory and part maximum-security prison. We’re not privy to Conor’s previous academic experience at the posh place on the other side of town, but his new world is one of poverty, neglect, and stunted ambition.  Ruled by a draconian principal who believes that corporal punishment is the best way to communicate with children, Synge Street is not exactly the kind of school where kids are taught to follow their dreams.

But Conor, quiet as he is, hides a secret reservoir of courage and tenacity. In stark contrast to his sweet but self-sabotaging burnout of an older brother (a charismatic Jack Reynor) who literally never leaves the house, Conor isn’t afraid to reach for what he wants. Of course, this being the Platonic ideal of a rock star origin story, our hero only snaps to it because of a girl.

And not just any girl, but a chain-smoking orphan with a bruised past, sad eyes and an older boyfriend. Irresistible! A perfect foil for the dumbstruck Conor, Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is lost in that strange pubescent limbo where she’s not a girl, not yet a woman — she’s a free agent who’s floating untethered between two separate worlds and waiting for someone to pull her ashore. Crucial to the character, Raphina’s enthusiasm for participating in Conor’s band is just as believable as her willingness to pal around with sleazeballs who are eager to exploit her naïveté. 

Conor, blowing smoke out of his ass, introduces himself Raphina by telling her that he needs a model for his band’s music video. The only problem with that otherwise perfect plan? He doesn’t have a band. Fortunately for him, he has the next best thing: a montage. This is where Carney shines, channeling “The Commitments” for an electrically fun and knowingly familiar clip in which Conor whips together a proto-Radiohead from the kids in his class.

Once he lands Eamon (Mark Mckenna) — a low-key prodigy who can seemingly play any instrument he picks up — the rest of the pieces fall into place. It’s cleverly haphazard stuff, and Carney is happy to embrace the exuberant happenstance of his protagonist’s scheme. One killer bit: Conor and Eamon drop by a classmate’s flat because they think that their band would be cooler with a black musician, but they visit the wrong apartment; the kid who answers the door also happens to fit the racial requirements, and so a lifelong friendship is born. 

Not only does Carney recapture the authenticity that made “Once” such an emotional juggernaut, he sustains it in the face of the giddy fantastical elements that galvanize the film like the chorus of a great pop song. Among the best running jokes is that “Sing Street,” as the boys name their band, is almost as good as the groups that inspire them. Borrowing from the sounds and styles of period-appropriate acts like Roxy Music and The Cure, these preternaturally talented ruffians manage to generate an LP’s worth of infectious original tunes (written by Carney and ex-Danny Wilson member Gary Clark). If a ragtag group of schoolboys actually wrote something like the Duran Duran-inspired “Riddle of the Model,” Conor would be the Bono of the 9th grade (with Eamon as his The Edge).

As the band pushes closer towards finding a sound of their own, their lyrics increasingly come to reflect Conor’s hopes for the future. The endlessly hummable “Drive It Like You Stole It” gives full-throated voice to how he and Raphina are moved to take control of their own lives. “Maybe you’re living in my world,” Conor eventually works up the courage to tell his bully. “You’re just material for my songs.” You can’t change where you grow up, where you go from there is up to you. “Sing Street” belts Carney’s usual refrain, but it’s never been so catchy before. 

Or so big. “Once” was written for coffee shops and lovelorn mixtapes, but the emotions here could fill an arena — in telling a story that cleaves so close to U2, perhaps it’s appropriate that “Sing Street” is “Zoo”-sized.  Doing what he can to keep up with a lead character whose head is in the clouds, it’s logical (and gratifying) that Carney ultimately shoots for the moon. He can’t quite thread the needle between real and imagined futures as well as Wes Anderson did in “Moonrise Kingdom,” and the energy sinks noticeably during the third act, but his film is buoyed by an indefatigable poptimism that keeps hope alive and convincingly sells the idea that life is what you make of it. “This is your life / you can go anywhere / you gotta grab the wheel and own it / you gotta put the pedal down / and drive it like you stole it.” 

“Once” with a bigger budget and smaller actors, “Sing Street” is a winsomely entertaining musical tribute to how passion can pave the way towards a better life. It lacks the wallop of Stuart Murdoch’s “God Help the Girl” and the reckless abandon of “We Are the Best!,” but the palpable sincerity of Carney’s personal vision allows his musical to spin a fresh melody from a mess of familiar beats. Not only will his movie leave you with a number of songs stuck in your head, it’ll inspire you to go home and write a few of your own.

Grade: B+

“Sing Street” opens in theaters this Friday.

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