John Carney Hits High Note With Jubilant "Sing Street"

“No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins.”

John Carney’s musical comedy “Sing Street” isn’t especially innovative but it is a joy, finally returning its writer-director to the Irish musical pocket he originated with “Once.” It’s been ten years since the filmmaker rolled cameras on his Dublin-set working class love story, a project that wouldn’t just become one of the decade’s most unlikely smashes ($20 million box office on a $150,000 budget). It would also nab an Academy Award for Best Original Song (“Falling Slowly”) and yield a Tony Award-winning musical.

Not only is “Sing Street” a worthy companion piece, it’s a healthy course correction from 2014’s half-baked “Begin Again,” a movie whose saccharinity gave high-fructose corn syrup a run for its money. No, Carney’s latest retreats from tooth-aching melodrama in favor of youthful vim and vigor, pairing a tremendous young ensemble with some wonderful original songs. There’s an exciting sense of discovery in both, with Carney allowing us to experience his good fortune right along with him.

1985. Newbie Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays 14 year-old Conor, a newly displaced Irish private schooler adjusting to life in a public institution. Discord between his parents (played by Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen) has landed him in the rough-and-tumble Synge Street Christian Brothers School with no guide but his burned out, reclusive older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). Conor is an outsider from the word “go” – the school’s principal has it out for him – leaving his real education to come in the form of records and music videos amusingly annotated by his fiercely dysfunctional family.

When an aspiring model named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) catches our lead’s eye, he asks her to be in his band’s music video. The rub: he doesn’t have a band. Enter a rambunctious, redheaded would-be producer named Darren (Ben Carolan), an aspiring songwriter named Eamon (Mark McKenna), and a few other willing bandmates, and Conor has his band. Now, for Raphina’s heart.

As the coterie writes music and shoots videos on a VHS camcorder, the film’s 80s pop aesthetic pairs splendidly with Carney’s derivative but undeniable coming-of-age narrative. The blustery love story at its core rings true at every turn – Boynton is an idyllic muse, accessible but always at arm’s length – manifesting itself believably in a flock of good-but-not-too-good pop tunes. By the time the story crescendos with an MTV-esque sequence designed around the picture’s best song (“Drive It Like You Stole It”), we’re all in. Conor’s drama has become our drama, from home to school and everywhere in between.

Here’s the thing about Ferdia Walsh-Peelo: he’s an actual high schooler, and his natural mix of ability and uncertainty – not to mention his frequently flushed face – works hugely in the film’s favor. Filmdom’s history of positing twenty and thirty-somethings as high schoolers has forever been dubious at best. Walsh-Peelo’s turn here drives a stake through it, crystallizing the importance of age-appropriate casting. He’s great, Boynton (who is necessarily a little older) is great, and his even younger castmates are great, too.

But it’s Reynor as Brendan who nearly pilfers the film away from everybody. The actor’s turn in the unremarkable “Transformers: Age Of Extinction” gave no indication that he could be as charismatic as he is here. As Conor’s stoner brother he’s indispensable, evoking that good-natured but troubled music freak we’ve all met. Even when Brendan hates his brother, he’s rooting wildly for him, one of many emotional minutiae that Carney’s screenplay gets exactly right.

Top to bottom “Sing Street” is as joyous a moviegoing experience as 2016 has offered to date, sweet and funny and just dark enough to keep the admittedly imitative story interesting. If it lacks the emotional resonance of “Once,” it tops it in both guile and humor. With a dynamite soundtrack and a story that only falters in its waning moments – largely due to Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine yelping over the top of it – this one’s a must for John Carney fans and neophytes alike.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: April 15, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: John Carney
Screenwriter: John Carney
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Mark McKenna, Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Ben Carolan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including strong language and some bullying behavior, a suggestive image, drug material and teen smoking)