Think back to your youthful years, the ones when you believed that rock and roll could save the world and help you get the girl (or the boy).
For director and writer John Carney, famous for writing and directing the Oscar winning Once, those years were the 1980s and the place was Dublin, an era and a city that have not exactly been synonymous with epic romance. But Carney has decided to change all that in his utterly irresistible new film that opened on Friday, Sing Street, a teenage coming of age drama that aims directly for your heart and scores a bull’s-eye.
Set in 1985, Carney introduces us to doe eyed young romantic Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and his pot smoking older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), two very different but oddly complimentary misfits whose shared love of music binds them together and helps them through the darkest times.
When we meet them times are getting dark again. There's a recession on. Conor's relentlessly warring parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen) have a marriage that is coming apart at the seams. The family finances are collapsing, and it even looks like their airy middle class home will be on the market soon.
To cut down on expenses Conor is told that his fancy Jesuit education has come to an end and he will instead be sent to a tough as nails national school run by the notorious Christian Brothers.
Synge Street (pronounced Sing Street) is the name of the new school in question, and before you can say “you've signed my death warrant Daddy,” Conor is being spat at, slapped, insulted and punched by all the assembled heavies that rule the place.
As coming of age dramas go this is not the most original direction to take, but Carney succeeds here by creating completely compelling characters and then asking us to root for them (he makes this part easy).
Dublin in all its epic 1980s ruination is one of the most endearing characters in the film, and Carney knows its run-down streets and the people who live in them in his bones, which gives Sing Street's unabashedly romantic storyline a genuinely gritty quality that helps sell it to the audience.
Conor starts the film as a fish out of water, looking like he might not be long for this world until he spots Raphina (Lucy Boynton), the mysterious model girl who completely turns his head.
Hoping to impress her (and perhaps score a date) he tells her he's a singer in a band, which leaves him with the task of actually starting one if he wants to ever see her again. Giving Conor the best reason in the world to succeed, the film then follows the band as it finds its feet, its sound and an audience.
It helps that the music is almost all original material written by Carney himself, and goodness, does it sound like it's completely of its era. The Cure meets Duran Duran meets Billy Idol meets A-ha in the film's brilliantly retro numbers, and most of these songs want you to sing along (try to stop yourself).
The suspicion that there's more than a little of Carney's own autobiography contained in Sing Street is inescapable too. Along with all the laughter there’s more than a hint of melancholy, especially when it comes to Conor's two central relationships (with Raphina and Brendan) which play like they were ripped directly from life.
One inspires him to find his talent, and the other helps him figure out what to do with it. In return he brings them joy and the film finds its irresistible focus.
More than anything though, it's the mighty pop music of the period that brings the film and the 198s back to radiant life. “Rio,” “Town Called Malice,” “In Between Days,” -- all the classic pop tracks that burned up the charts inspire the band to find their own voice and look, and what begins as a joke ends up having serious potential.
Carney knows you get one shot at teenage love and one shot at making it in rock and roll, and Conor gambles on both of them to win. In doing so Carney (and we the audience) gets to find the magic he once knew or that he once missed; it doesn't matter.
Sing Street still believes in rock and roll and it wants you to get the girl (or the boy). Like all the best gigs, you'll walk home singing.