Musicals were thought to be a dead film genre for decades, until the movie version of the Broadway classic “Chicago” came along to save the day as a smash success in 2002. Yet even as that film’s smash-hit $170 million gross and Best Picture win brought song and dance numbers back to the big screen, there are still relatively few of them, and most are driven by having the splashiest song and dance routines imaginable.
Irish writer-director named John Carney has spent the past nine years bucking that bigger-means-better trend. Instead, his simple stories with terrific tunes, including the Oscar-winning 2007 indie hit “Once” and the Oscar-nominated 2014 film “Begin Again,” make music a vibrant and organic part of real-world settings and relatable, downright human characters.
His latest, “Sing Street,” may be his most personal and my favorite movie of his, even though his “Begin Again” made my top 10 list two years ago. Set in 1985 Dublin, “Sing Street” follows the story of a 14-year-old Irish boy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who is renamed Cosmo by a beautiful 16-year-old girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) he’s attracted to. Cosmo finds he has to start a rock band on the fly because he told her he’s a lead singer, in a movie that’s sweepingly romantic, music-filled and often funny – thus making it Dateworthy.
As he forms the band with a group of his friends, Cosmo has to overcome a series of challenges, including a home life being torn asunder by his battling parents and their monetary struggles. To save money, they’ve moved him to a strict, state-run Catholic school, where he faces off against bullies, both in the classroom and in the front office (a vicious religious brother named Brother Baxter, played by Don Wycherley).
But as his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) teaches him about the latest and greatest New Wave bands, and Raphina inspires his heart, Cosmo is determined not to give up. His musical journey as he and his band mates develop songs copying the styles of Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall & Oates and many others en route to finding his own true composing spirit is energizing, romantic, funny, occasionally sad and thoroughly engaging.
Carney gets this movie right on every possible level, from his wise casting of utter unknowns who help keep the story fresh and unexpected, through its genuinely terrific songs and the perfectly impassioned feelings of young love. “Sing Street” provides viewers with a thoroughly immersive experience, making them feel so invested in these charming characters that they will have to restrain themselves from cheering throughout.
Carney dedicates the film “To Brothers Everywhere,” an indication that the film is very close to his own heart. As the bassist for the popular Irish band The Frames from 1991 to 1993 before embarking on his filmmaking career, he clearly developed a strong sense of how to express the way great songwriting can give a rush of confidence and vitality to a writer.
The one small drag on the movie from a Catholic perspective is that the Brother in charge of Cosmo’s school is portrayed as a vicious and mean man who won’t tolerate an ounce of rebellion and teenage spirit in his students. He crosses the line big-time in slapping and nearly drowning Cosmo in a sink full of water for wearing a bit of makeup in the vein of the New Wave bands that he admires like Duran Duran. But the scene is a brief couple of minutes in a movie in which the kids have refreshingly good values, and to be honest, I was slapped hard myself once by a mean-spirited Brother, so Carney is likely recounting his own reality rather than creating an anti-clergy agenda.
He also quite possibly used his own life for the stirring mix of good times and bad that Cosmo goes through, and the profound influence Cosmo’s older brother has on his future. With barely a word of foul language and a generally sweet disposition throughout, the crowd-pleasing “Sing Street” may prove to be the perfect film to take your mother to either this week or next, when Mother’s Day rolls around.