Band of brothers
In John Carney’s ‘Sing Street’, music is a boys’ club

“It’s all about the girl,” advises Brendan Lalor (Jack Reynor), lank of hair and firm of opinion, to his younger brother, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). The two of them are in Brendan’s bedroom, perusing footage of Conor’s band, Sing Street. The enthusiastic teenage members have managed to shoot a music video in the back streets of Dublin, where they live, and the star of the video is Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an aspiring model. Conor has a terrible crush on her, and she’s aware of it. A little older than he is, she indulges his puppy love. Conor formed the band to impress her, even though she already has an older boyfriend who drives a car and listens to Genesis. Then again, as Brendan reassures his sibling, “No woman can ever truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins.”

Sing Street, a coming of age comedy, is the seventh feature by Irish writer and director John Carney. Carney is best known internationally for his 2007 musical Once, which starred Glen Hansard of Irish rock group The Frames. In the early 1990s Carney played bass guitar in The Frames, and Sing Street, which is set during 1985, is a love letter to the rock ’n’ roll dreams of teenage boys. Form a band, write some songs, get the girl. Conor – who might be seen as a stand-in for Carney himself – tries it all.

But the film opens on dimmer prospects, both for Conor and for Ireland. The country is suffering a recession, and any young person who can scrape together the fare is leaving on the ferry to London. Conor’s middle-class Catholic family is hitting the skids: his father Robert (Aidan Gillen), an architect, is short of work, and his mother Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is unhappy in the marriage. To save money, his parents pull Conor out of private school and transfer him to Synge Street Christian Brothers School, where the boys are tough and the priests tyrannical. (Synge Street is a real school: Carney was once a student there.) Conor is bullied, predictably enough, but the school does throw him into the path of Raphina, a resident at the girls’ home across the street, and supply him with willing bandmates.

Conor’s sales pitch to the latter is that he is a musical “futurist”, but Sing Street is plainly nostalgic, and funniest when it indulges in gentle parody of period styles. Sing Street, the band, rapidly cycle through 1980s musical sub-genres: New Romantic pop in the style of Duran Duran; “happy sad” indie rock like The Cure, and smooth soul-boy moves modelled on Hall & Oates. All of these artists feature on the soundtrack, as do original songs in close imitation of them, written by Scottish musician Gary Clark. The latter songs are plausibly bad enough to be the work of teenage amateurs, though this becomes a minor obstacle as the film draws to a climax. Scenes transparently designed to sweep an audience away with the power of music falter, because the songs are weak. But the young cast do look the part.

The romantic fortunes of Conor and Raphina are the film’s alternate focus. I kept hoping that Raphina would be asked to join the band, bringing the two plots more closely together, but her role is strictly as a muse. There are suggestions of trauma both in her past and present, the implications of which are never properly explored, but which serve to make her character more vulnerable. Conor wants to be her saviour.

More interesting is the relationship between Conor and Brendan, the latter played by Jack Reynor in a way that neatly straddles obnoxiousness and goodwill. Brendan is never short of advice, either musical or romantic, for his younger brother. But he’s also lost: a university dropout, a habitual stoner, someone who seems afraid to leave his room and put any of his dreams to the test. He and Conor love each other but can’t actually say so; instead they argue over music, while keeping their sister Ann (Kelly Thornton) at arm’s length.

As I watched Sing Street I thought about Lukas Moodysson’s 2013 film, We Are The Best!, which was set in 1982, and centred around an all-girl punk band in Stockholm. That film took for granted that teenage girls can be as enthusiastic about music as boys, and it would have been nice had even one female character in Sing Street been allowed the same outlet. The film is dedicated “To brothers everywhere”: an honourable sentiment, though the hint of exclusion remains.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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