A Muddled Message with a Song in Its Heart
I don’t know if you know this, but writer/director John Carney loves music. You’d probably be able to tell from the fact that two of his previous films, Once and Begin Again, centered around struggling musicians grappling with the ideas of love and happiness as their songs played major roles in how they moved forward in their lives.
Well, would it surprise you to know that his latest film, Sing Street, also focuses on musicians dealing with love and the pursuit of their dreams through the music that they make? It’s not exactly new ground, but it’s clearly in Carney’s wheelhouse, which both works with and against him here in this ‘80s-set coming of age story.
Set in the midst of the heyday of the New Wave music movement in Dublin, Sing Street finds young Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) forced to change schools and attend the rough and uncaring Synge Street CBS. While there, Conor falls for the mysterious aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and decides to form a band to impress her despite having no real musical experience. As Conor struggles to grow in a largely unsupportive environment, he discovers the creative process and tries to forge a new life with a motley crew of new friends that form his band.
As a whole, Sing Street has several narrative elements in mind. There’s the musical creative process and the variety of songs that it creates throughout the film’s runtime. Then there’s the story of Conor growing up and coming to terms with both his family and surroundings. And finally there’s Conor’s young love romance with Raphina, which blends together with both the music and Conor’s coming of age story. It isn’t quite clear which of these three is the film’s main focus and each jockey for control of the narrative at various times. However, they’re not all at equal levels of enjoyment or interest.
To be frank, Sing Street’s romance elements are straight out of any run-of-the-mill teen romance film and are just about as good as any stock high school love story to be found flicking through the television channels at night. Unfortunately, the Conor-Raphina romance takes up a large portion of the film’s runtime and even comes to define the film’s ending despite several plot turns at first making it seem as though it wouldn’t be the case. For a film as focused on the power of music and the creative process, it’s disappointing to see Sing Street settle for being a rather mediocre romance at its core. It’s not that Walsh-Peelo and Boynton are weak in their roles. They bring a sense of raw realism to the fairly stock roles they inhabit. But the film’s been-there-done-that story arcs don’t bring anything fresh and these two characters are so clearly wrong for one another that anyone who isn’t a starry-eyed teen will find their relationship largely laughable.
But for a film that’s all about music, the best parts of Sing Street are unsurprisingly all about the music. Carney’s film is a love letter to ‘80s music, most specifically New Wave bands like Duran Duran, and their influence on the times. As Conor learns more about music from his big brother Brendan (played exceptionally well by Jack Reynor, who brings both a charm and a brokenness to the role of the burnt-out older brother), his style changes over time. Does Conor ever really become his own unique musician? Not really. But that’s not surprising for a teenager.
What’s actually surprising is that most of the songs throughout Sing Street are far too much fun for those supposedly created by a band of inexperienced young teenage musicians. It’s in Conor’s jam sessions with the band that Sing Street really lights up, with the ideas of the creative process providing far more fertile ground for the film than its romantic side plot. Carney knows how to intertwine character development with catchy songs to satisfy both the growth of his central figures and also make the most of his film’s musical elements.
But where Once found charming balance between both character and music and Begin Again generally had more interesting characters and narratives than songs (except for the wonderful closer “Lost Stars”), Sing Street’s songs are just a lot more energetic and captivating than its story. Their throwback styles and varying influences will invariably connect with viewers at one point or another, depending on their musical preferences. And it’s the late addition “Drive It Like You Stole It” that will most likely nestle into your brain and stay there for a while.
Those musical elements, along with the recurring music videos that accompany them in the context of the film, walk a certain line between the grounded and the fantastical throughout Sing Street. But Carney’s just trying too hard to have it both ways here. Is his film a gruff look at what it was like being an outsider in ‘80s Dublin or is it a fantastical exploration of the power of music? Or are his characters just blindly following dreams that may end in disaster for them mere moments after the film ends?
These aren’t questions that arise due to the film wanting its viewers to ruminate on its various themes. No, they’re the result of muddled storytelling that can’t quite ever be what it wants to be. If you’re wondering what Sing Street is actually trying to say after its close, then it’s likely the result of you pulling apart its all-too-loosely-woven threads. It’s clear this is a film that’s meant to excite and inspire, not cause debate. Which is a shame, because there’s woefully little to debate over, as its a film that largely dabbles in cliches.
Boy meets girl. Boy starts band to impress girl. Boy’s music helps him pursue dreams outside of his dark and dreary everyday life. If that story connects with you, it’s likely due to the catchy, simplistic rhythms of its story and music. If not, it’s likely due to the film’s one too many credulity-stretching plot developments that turn this feel good story into a bit of an eye-roller. A fun eye-roller. But an eye-roller nonetheless.