Friday, August 19, 2016

Word on the Street

Throughout July, a number of movie critics were talking up their lists of "the best films of 2016 (so far)." I noticed one movie in particular that kept popping up: Sing Street.

Set in Dublin, Ireland in 1985, Sing Street is the story of Conor, a young man who is forced by his family's financial woes to transfer to a new high school. He struggles with bullying classmates, a tyrannical principal, and bickering parents. But there is a potential bright spot in his life: the enigmatic and beautiful Raphina. When Conor tries to impress her by claiming he's in a band, he must quickly make that band a reality. With the encouragement and eclectic musical influences of his brother Brendan, Conor is soon writing his own songs and shooting his own music videos.

Sing Street is a movie with a host of "access points" for the audience. Any given viewer might identify with school struggles, or with the close relationship with a brother, or with the chase for an unattainable girl, or with parents on the brink of divorce, or with using music as an escape. You might love the comedy of the film, or the more serious moments. You might love all the references to 80s pop culture. (It sure worked for Stranger Things.) Or you might love the music.

This film features half a dozen original songs, and they really are perfect for the film. As Conor is exposed to Duran Duran, The Cure, or Hall and Oates, he winds up creating songs heavily influenced by each in turn (and his fashion sense transforms to mimic his new idols). The songs are a loving pastiche of catchy 80s tunes, with lyrics that reflect on the plot, and a performance quality that improves realistically throughout the movie as the band gains more confidence and skill.

Director John Carney (who also wrote the movie) pulls from a great bag of tricks throughout the film. We see the band's first attempt at a music video in all its awkward glory. There's a fantastic single take that tracks the time-lapse development of a new song. There's an all-out musical extravaganza where the whole cast gets to play in a dream sequence of Conor's imagining.

And that cast is outstanding. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo makes his acting debut as Conor. He was apparently a prize-winning singer throughout his youth, and convincingly "dumbs down" his skill as this story calls for. (His bandmates and friends are all also first time actors.) Lucy Boynton is endearing as Raphina, working the best angles of the "wise beyond her years" type. Jack Reynor is great fun as Conor's brother Brendan, and equally skilled in more dramatic moments as the movie pulls into the third act. Plus, there are two recognizable veterans making the most of small roles as Conor's parents: Aidan Gillen (from Game of Thrones and The Wire) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (from Orphan Black and The Tudors).

The movie's ending is a touch suspect, and overall it isn't really breaking any of the coming-of-age story tropes. Still, it's an excellent take on those tropes, with some catchy music to boot. I give it an A-. It is indeed among the best movies of 2016 (so far).

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