9 out of 10
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Cosmo
Directed by: John Carney
Sing Street Review:
I was in a band in the 1990s. It was a cover band, mostly 1950s and 1960s rock music – songs from bands like the Everly Brothers, or the Temptations, and of course, Elvis and The Beatles. I was a singer – not a lead singer, although I took lead on a couple of songs. We played exactly two gigs. During one of them a fight broke out while I was singing a slow song – I can’t remember which song it was, but I remember that it was over a girl. Someone broke a bottle, but nothing came of it. Later after the gig, as we left, the two men who were fighting were hugging it out like old friends. Singing in that band was one of the most definitive experiences of my life, and one I think about often. Music defines all our lives that way; for some, it’s essential and vital, and for others, it simply makes the rough patches tolerable.
There are very few things as powerful as performing in front of a crowd, their eyes on you, devouring every moment, feeding off you as you feed off them, and for a brief moment the beautiful lie that a song can change the world becomes spectacularly, gloriously real. Each second is an eternity; each moment is all too brief. Having experienced it a few times in my life, I can attest to just how incredible it can be.
John Carney absolutely believes in that power, the faith that a song can steer and shape destinies, and more importantly, that anyone can tap into it, if they’re brave and imaginative enough. His first film, Once, explored the beauty of collaboration, of two souls colliding and changing each other’s lives for the better. Begin Again covered similar ground, and Carney’s sophomore effort was confidently directed and filled with compelling music. Now, with Sing Street, Carney commits to the optimism of his previous films, and has created a slice of life that not only explores the 1980s musical scene but the ability of music to change everything. Sing Street is earnest – perhaps too earnest for some – but it means what it says. This is a dogma that Carney believes in so strongly that his conviction is infectious; like the best musicals of cinema, this isn’t merely fantasy, but the world as it should be.
As Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in a wonderful first screen performance) experiences life at a new school in Dublin, Ireland, music is his escape. His parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) have been on the verge of divorce for pretty much his entire life, his sister Ann (Kelly Thornton) has her own life to live, and his brother Brendan (Jack Traynor, who is excellent) is a burnout, listening to music and dreaming of better times. With his parents lacking the finances to put Cosmo in his original school, Cosmo ends up in Synge Street Parochial School, harassed by bullies and the unsympathetic clergy. Cosmo decides to get into music for the universal reason – to impress a girl. Not just any girl, but the mysterious and lovely Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who everyone at school is curious about.
But Cosmo realizes something – he has talent. He can write songs – songs that are heavily derivative of bands he loves like Duran Duran, The Cure, and The Jam, but they are also full of his voice, and his yearning to escape. His brother, sensing a kindred soul, steers Cosmo musically, all the while quietly struggling with his own dreams that have seemingly passed him by. Cosmo forms a strong friendship with fellow musical collaborator Eamon (Mark McKenna) who is something of a musical prodigy, and builds a band called Sing Street. For all of the band members, the music proves an opportunity to break out of their existences, and as the band gets better and finds its voice, Cosmo realizes that for him, Sing Street just might be his ticket out.
It helps that the songs are so good. Each song Sing Street performs is something of a musical journey of the 1980s – from the fashion rock of Duran Duran to the “happysad” influences of The Cure, and even the songcraft of Hall and Oates and Joe Jackson. You can hear those other bands inside Sing Street’s songs, but there’s also a passion and a hope that is impossible to deny. Carney has an ability to create music that cuts right to the heart, full of rich emotion and yearning. They are cathartic and cinematic; during one scene Cosmo imagines performing in a music video and the result is one of those movie moments that burns in memory. Like The Commitments, another terrific film about Dublin musicians, Sing Street has no room for the banality of ordinary life, and the film’s declaration that dreams do no one any good if they stay inside the head feels alive, young, and free.
The magic of the best musicals is the refusal to settle for the staid conformity of ordinary life; that for a brief instant, with the right combination of notes and beats, you can see the universe open up and show us wonders. It is cinema at its full potential, and the sentiment may be overwhelming for some, but for me it’s what makes the best movies sing. We share in the pain, the joy, the tears, and the laughs with these characters so closely that their feelings can become our own, if we can let them past the gates of cynicism and resignation. John Carney refuses to accept the mundane world we have been given. Just past the horizon are treasures and opportunities, and all that is needed is to reach out and take them. There is no place for pessimism in Sing Street, and the final shot, full of hope and joy and curiosity, has burned its place in my heart. Music can redeem, inspire, move, and make us fall in love. John Carney wants everyone to understand just how pure and good that feeling can be. This is one of the best films of the year.