Sunday, April 17, 2016

New movie review: Sing Street

Sing Street is writer-director John Carney's latest musical masterpiece about discovering yourself by discovering your art.

I cannot say precisely why I first picked up a guitar. I had lyrics in need of music but nothing really to say. I had no dreams of rock stardom. It was not to get girls. I liked the noise, I suppose, but since picking up that first guitar, banging out a few hesitant chords, and whispering a couple quiet songs into a microphone in the corner of my room, I know there is no way to go back to the time before. Music is like that. It finds you. It gets inside you. It is something your body and soul require in a way your mind cannot conceive. One simply must have music.

No filmmaker knows this need better than writer-director John Carney, who captured lightning in a bottle before with his superb 2007 musical Once. If his new film, Sing Street, does not quite match that achievement, it is only because it rides in on a different storm. A semi-autobiographical ode to all the kids the world knocks around just because it can, Carney’s latest is a bittersweet hymn of rebellion that cries out with optimism amid the darkness at all its edges.

Set in Dublin in 1986, 15-year-old Cosmo, né Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), is growing up in a broken home. Oh, his parents are together – Catholic rules and Irish mores about divorce being what they were – but their family is a slowly sinking shipwreck just the same. When the film begins, Cosmo is told he will be sent to the Synge Street Christian Brothers School as a way to save money. The school is known among those willing to speak such truths as a dead end for education where you are more likely to be molested by the priests than taught anything of value.

On his first day, he is bullied by students and faculty alike. He is forced to dance while at the wrong end of a slingshot. The headmaster upbraids him for wearing brown shoes instead of black. Then he sees the girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton). A year older, she says she is a model and intends to light out for London at the first chance she gets. She is beautiful and he is smitten, so Cosmo believes every word and asks if she would not mind appearing in a music video for his band. She agrees, and because sometimes the best plans are conceived under pressure, he now must form a band and write some songs.

He puts together a group of misfits, including a guitarist with a rabbit obsession, a keyboardist who happens to be the only black kid in school, and a bassist who thinks a dime-store cowboy costume makes him look like an outlaw. They are Sing Street, and Cosmo’s first foray into songwriting is heavily influenced by the songs of Depeche Mode and Duran Duran in heavy rotation on Top of the Pops, which he and his brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), watch religiously.

His first song, “The Riddle of the Model,” is passably enjoyable, but it does not sound much like Cosmo, who crucially does not commit his band’s sound to the new wave label it so resembles but rather calls it futurist music. It is not just the music, though, that points to the future. It is Cosmo himself. While he continues to write about his infatuation with Raphina – by which she is clearly flattered – he begins to incorporate the grievances of his daily life into his songs, and that is when the music becomes his own.

Cosmo may have started his band to get Raphina to notice him, but once he has it, he can give voice to the anger and frustration he always felt but could not express. He wanted the girl, but he needed the music. Parents who fight constantly, a brother whose own dreams of music and escape eluded him, and a vicious headmaster all find their way into the musical landscape of Cosmo’s mind. It is the best way he can truly process the darkness all around him without being consumed by it.

The same could be said for the film, which is littered with despair and gloom but not preoccupied by it. Carney is smart enough to let the littlest details do the heaviest lifting while his simple coming-of-age story is carried along. We learn everything we need to know about Raphina in a beautifully written and expertly delivered line of dialogue about her now-deceased father that goes mostly unnoticed but colors everything else around it. Sing Street is filled with gems like that, subtly building the depressed world of these characters without wallowing in it.

Carney, who has always been a masterful storyteller, also seems finally to have come into his own as a filmmaker, evidenced by two scenes that could not be more different. The first is a quiet conversation on the stairs between the two brothers, and the other is a rousing song-and-dance number, the kind of showstopper musicals always seem to feature.

Jack Reynor and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in Sing Street
For a director whose films mostly revolve around music, Carney excels at showing moments of silence and reflection. When the music stops, he seems to argue, that is when the shadows of the real world creep in and threaten to expel the light. Cosmo and Brendan are sitting on the stairs, watching their mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy from that classic Dublin musical The Commitments) out on the porch. She is reading a magazine, smoking a cigarette, and basking in the sun.

Brendan tells Cosmo she has always wanted to go to Spain but their father never takes her, so she soaks in the little afternoon light she can, dreaming of another life, until the sun disappears behind the tallest tree in the yard and the darkness returns. This moment, in which Cosmo realizes the depth of his mother’s heartache, accomplishes so much while saying so little that it is remarkable. This recognition informs every decision the brothers make for the rest of the film, and it goes by so quickly and quietly you hardly notice the marks it leaves.

Later, Carney pulls out all the stops to show the audience just what it means to live in darkness and dream about the light. Like all artists, Cosmo walks a fine line between experiencing the world as it is and the way he wishes it were. Inspired by the school dance in Back to the Future, Cosmo wants to film a music video that will feature dozens of extras, 1950s costumes, matching suits for the band, a huge choreographed dance, and him as the lead who gets the girl. All he can muster is eight kids wearing shabby clothes in an empty gymnasium. Even Raphina fails to show.

As the band kicks into the song, though, we are transported into Cosmo’s world – a world in which he gets everything he wants and more. The dancers, the suits, the American-style prom decorations, it is all there. His parents are there, dancing happily together. The headmaster bursts through the doors and performs a series of backflips before joining the dance. Raphina shows up, and they run away together.

The whole sequence is gorgeously executed by Carney, who relies on the audience’s attachment to Cosmo to communicate the sadness in the dream. None of this is real. None of this is even possible – not for a kid like Cosmo in a place like Dublin. The only real thing is a group of kids playing their hearts out to an empty gym. The band is always real. That is what makes Cosmo more than just some kid in a dire city. It makes him an artist, and always flowing through his veins is the music.

See it? Yes.

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