Young love, in literature and in film — and certainly in John Carney's new movie Sing Street, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee — is pure joy.
Our hero is Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, in his big-screen debut), a 15-year-old everyboy with an awful haircut at a new state school in Dublin in 1985. It's the year of A-Ha's "Take on Me" and Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future, and Conor retreats to the comfort of futurist music as his parents' marriage disintegrates at home and Brother Baxter, his principal, makes life hell at school.
In a ballsy move one afternoon, Conor confronts an aspirant model named Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who poses on the stoop of a girls' home with an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. He tells her that he's in a band and invites her to appear in an upcoming music video. The only problem is the band doesn't exist.
No matter. Conor has youth and infatuation (and pretty solid lyrical gifts) on his side, and he contrives to put a band together in the span of a few days. Bumbling their way through new instruments and a revolving door of musical influences, Conor, his virtuoso buddy Eamon (Jack McKenna) and a ragtag assortment of novice rockers manage to record enough of a song to convince Raphina to appear in the video.
But Raphina has designs of her own. Conor is crushed when he learns that she already has a boyfriend — "an actual man, with stubble and all" — and that she intends to go to London to kickstart her modeling career. Undeterred, Conor keeps writing songs, and keeps improving, and gets closer to Raphina, who's dealing with existential issues of her own.
Sing Street, like Carney's earlier films Once and Begin Again, centers on the musical aspirations of its protagonist, and the romantic aspirations therefrom. Original music, inspired by such '80s alternative rockers as Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Jam and Hall & Oates, is seamlessly integrated into the story. It's often used to convey what the characters can't say directly to each other. Every time Sing Street (the band, a play on the name of their school) records a new tune, Conor bikes across town to drop off a tape at Raphina's doorstep. Also like in Once, the songs occasionally and unrealistically drift from conception to practice to performance-readiness in the span of three minutes, but disbelief is easily (and I might add, enthusiastically) suspended.
Remember in Once, when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova sat down at a piano in a music shop in Dublin and played "Falling Slowly" for the first time? Or when, in the studio, the pulsing 5/4 tempo of "When Your Mind's Made Up" inspired the studio recordist to smile? You were smiling right along with him.
And you'll smile right along with this lovable cast of teenage misfits too, when Conor and Eamon begin to incorporate piano in their poppy love song "Up," or when Conor imagines a fully realized music video for the band's flagship anthem "Drive It Like You Stole It." That sequence, a sort of climactic flight of fancy, successfully reifies the film's overarching conflict about pursuing dreams in the face of stark realities.
But you'll be smiling most of all at Conor and Raphina themselves, two kids whose big innocent ambitions are so familiar and — dammit — so adorable. You might say Sing Street is "predictable" (a lame critique, in a vacuum) or that its adult characters (dad: Aiden Gillen, mom: Maria Doyle Kennedy, big bro: Jack Reynor) are broadly, stereotypically drawn, and that's true. But the story is ultimately a love story, with music as flavor, theme and narrative device. And with these untarnished stars, plus the incredibly groovy, catchy retro tunes, you'll walk out of the theater with a spring in your step and a twinkle in your eye.