A film review by Craig J. Koban May 28, 2016

RANK: #10

RANK:  #1


2016, PG-13, 106 mins.


Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Cosmo  /  Lucy Boynton as Raphina  /  Jack Reynor as Brendan  /  Aiden Gillen as Robert  /  Mark McKenna as Eamon  /  Maria Doyle Kennedy as Penny  /  Kelly Thornton as Ann  /  Kyle Bradley Donaldson as Fifth Former  /  Ben Carolan as Darren  /  Percy Chamburuka as Ngig  /  Conor Hamilton as Larry  /  Karl Rice as Garry  /  Ian Kenny as Barry  /  Don Wycherley as Brother Baxter  /  Lydia McGuinness as Mrs. Dunne  /  Ben Carolan as Darren  /  Ben Carolan as Darren  /  Connor Hamilton as Larry  /  Pádraig J. Dunne as Surveyor

Written and directed by John Carney

If SING STREET were a person then I would wholeheartedly hug it.  

It’s an infectiously enjoyable coming-of-age musical comedy of boundless feel-good optimism, made all the more toe-tappingly enjoyable considering that it’s a love ballad to music, music creation, and youthful artistic creativity.  The film tells the tale of a young Irish boy that uses music as a form of soulful therapy to help him escape from the depressing doldrums of his daily life.  Despite its displaced setting and period, SING STREET speaks relatable volumes towards the power of pubescent drives and how young and  impoverished kids with seemingly no hope in sight find salvation in music.  I’m reasonably sure that I loved every minute of the film. 

SING STREET is the third film from Irish director John Carney, whom previously helmed the 2007 Oscar winning ONCE and more recently BEGIN AGAIN.  SING STREET rounds off his musical film trilogy, once again displaying an unparalleled affinity for infusing an appreciation of music into the dramatic trappings of his stories.  SING STREET’s sense of nostalgia is gloriously high, with a rich and eclectic soundtrack of new tunes written specifically for the film as well as a host of iconic 80’s music (from The Cure, A-ha, Duaran Duran, The Clash, Hall & Oates, and The Jam) that collectively transported me to the era of my upbringing and the spirit of the times.  

SING STREET is not just about music, though; it tells a touching story of family strife, it’s an endearing parable about the unconquerably strength of sibling solidarity, it’s a sweetly moving story of teenage romance, and it’s an icy reflection of the cripplingly sad socio-economic times of mid-80’s Dublin.  Carney's film doesn’t score overt points for narrative originality, but the manner that he brings all of these disparaging elements together to craft a rousing crowd-pleasing whole is thanklessly praiseworthy. 



For as joyously plucky as SING STREET is, the film is nevertheless palpably grounded in human misery from the get-go.  We’re introduced to 1985 Dublin, a place that feels inviting, but is also ravaged by chronic unemployment that seems to be affecting everyone in some form.  With many of the city’s citizens desperately looking for a way out of their homes and to different places with more hopeful occupational prospects, there’s very little for anyone in Dublin to look forward to in the future.  This sentiment especially strikes very close to home for 14-year-old Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), whose parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) are facing tough marital strife alongside nagging doubts as to their financial security.  With money in short supply, Cosmo is pulled from his private school and is sent to Synge Street, which is, more or less, a hostile prison disguised as Catholic institution. 

Cosmo’s life goes from bad to worse overnight.  When he’s not maliciously tormented by schoolyard bullies, he faces the rather vengeful wraith of Father Baxter (Don Wycherley), someone that’s not afraid to get very personal and physical with unruly students.  Cosmo does find some solace in meeting a pretty young girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) that lives at a nearby shelter for teenage girls.  Raphina is a few years older than Cosmo and seems unendingly attractive, which makes Cosmo’s few friends think that she’s hopelessly out of his league.  Yet, he bolsters up the confidence to go and chat with her.  To curb some semblance of approval from her, Cosmo appeals to her model good looks and asks her to be in a music video that he’s producing, to which she agrees.  Unfortunately, Cosmo has one major stumbling block: he has no band, nor any immediate plans for a music video.  Rather quickly, he turns to his buddy Darren (Ben Carolan) and musician Eamon (Mark McKenna) for immediate help, and within no time Cosmos is able to put together a fairly respectable group.  With further mentoring by his music-worshiping brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), Cosmos launches plans for a series of music videos, driven purely by artistic aspirations…and a yearning to get the girl, of course. 

One of the sublime pleasures of watching SING STREET is witnessing its ambitious and talented teenage characters making the most out of the terrible times they reside in by channeling their shared desolation into something positively inspiring.  The manner the film shows Cosmo building his band together from scratch – seemingly on the fly – and turning most of these social rejects into truly worthy musical colleagues is genuinely uplifting.  Rather compellingly, Cosmo and his motley crew are not talentless wannabes…they’re good…really good…but they need a launching off point to escape from merely doing covers of classic and cherished tunes in order to churn out their own unique voices.  Even though SING STREET is a film about kids making music videos with shoestring budgets and production values, it still fully encompasses the process of artistic motivation and discovery when it comes to crafting art.  Cosmos and the gang are trying to figure out who they are both in music and life.  

Concurrent to this are two love stories in the film, the first of which involves Cosmo’s courtship of Raphina.  Even though stories of young men trying to win over the objects of their affection have been done so many countless times before in teen centric films, Carney somehow makes it feel grounded, alive, and fresh here.  He also develops both characters as fleshed out and fully realized beings with individual pains and fears, and the two inevitably come together not only because of their passion for music and respect of one another, but also as a coping mechanism.  This is greatly assisted by the serenely naturalistic performances by Walsh-Peelo and Boynton, who bring an unexpected warmth and depth to their flawed and trouble youths that many other similar genre films seem to fail at.   The film serves up potentially formulaic obstacles to their young love, but Carney is shrewd enough to serve them up with authentic strokes, seeing as they’re deeply rooted within the anxieties that these two souls experience. 

The other love story in SING STREET personally spoke to me the most, and that’s the brotherly one between Cosmo and Brendan.  Brendan, in a lesser writer's and actor’s hands, could have become a crude caricature and cheap source of comic relief as a lethargic, drug using slacker with no tangible goals beyond getting high.  Certainly, Brendan is that in many ways, but he too – much like Cosmo and the other characters – are afforded atypical introspection in the way the film explores his own guarded sorrows and how they're manifested in the sense that he gave up on his own dreams years ago.  Brendan re-channels his regrets about his own life choices into providing for his younger brother’s musical education, wanting to course correct Cosmo at every turn to ensure that he can take his ample and established abilities to the next level.  I loved how Brendan never becomes childishly jealous of his sibling’s gifts, but rather wants to be a positive sphere of influence in cultivating them.  Ultimately, SING STREET becomes unexpectedly moving and accurate in relaying how brothers show support for each other not by what’s spoken or specifically done, but rather by how they’re…just there as emotional anchors.   

Oh yeah, and there’s music in SING STREET as well.  Alongside the soundtrack being peppered by the aforementioned catalogue of legendary 80’s hits, Carney and his collaborators also penned original songs for the youth group to belt out in the film, including the addictively melodic and hummable Theory of a Model and Drive It Like You Stole, destined for potential Oscar glory in the Original Song category (if there’s any Academy justice left in the world).  SING STREET reminded me of why I go to the movies.  It made me smile.  It also filled my heart with unwavering happiness.  In a cynical period when teenagers are routinely served up for debasement in gross-out comedies or disgustingly killed off like random targets in mindless torture porn outings, it’s so wonderful to see a film like SING STREET that portrays bright-minded and exceptional young men and women creating something out of thin air that they’re passionate about, with the only limits being their fertile imaginations.  I usually despise the critical moniker “feel-good movie,” but it fits SING STREET like a glove.  It’s an unqualified charmer and a wholly loveable movie.  

You may want to hug it after seeing it…that is, if you could

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