‘For brothers everywhere.’
These are the words we are left with at the close of John Carney’s coming-of-age romance Sing Street, which tells the story of an Irish teenager in the ‘80s who forms a band to win a girl’s heart. In a world full of strained home relationships and parents finding it difficult to live with each other, we often find brothers to be the secret to survival, whether it’s dealing with the oddities of our parents or learning the art of rock n’ roll in order to impress a girl. One of the first and strongest bonds we form in our lifetimes, brotherhood is the stepping stone from which we find the strength to chase more mature emotions and form relationships with new people. By letting us into the world of the teenager apart from just his mates and the girl, Sing Street pulls off something special in this powerful character drama, placing the character in a raw reality which appears cold and emotionless until you watch it come alive with every risk you take.
The first time we are introduced to Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), he is strumming freestyle on the guitar, improvising lines to the abuses and arguments exchanged between his parents in the next room. A teenager in 1985 south inner-city Dublin, and the youngest child of Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) Lalor, he has grown up in the shadow of his parents’ broken marriage with only his brother for companionship. When financial trouble at home forces his parents to transfer him to Synge Street, a public school run by the Christian Brothers, Conor finds the kids’ ways of life very different from that of his well-off ex-schoolmates from Jesuit school. Truly a fish out of water, and faced with changes too sudden for a teenager trying to find himself in adolescence, he gravitates towards the dangerous eyes of the girl across the street, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), the singular image of his desire. Sing Street chronicles the passionate story of Conor, Raphina, his bandmates, and his brother as they together break the bleakness of existence in Dublin at the time, in their search for greener pastures to fill the emptiness with meaning.
There is just something about rock music from this time period that speaks directly to the pangs of teenage – of unrequited love and the desire to break free – and it is woven in so seamlessly into the quilt of the film that it ceases to be a separate element, instead driving the story and projecting the moods of the protagonist. Using the rise of the music video in the ‘80s with bands like Duran Duran to its advantage, Sing Street elevates the music from being simply the audio backdrop to being an active player in the visuals as well, pumping each performance by the band with raw emotion that makes it a deserving substitute for conversational drama. It is expressionism at its best, as the unbridled music and evocative visuals hold hands in harmony to come at the audience with all the angst and determination of a schoolboy. The music is clearly a major character on its own, and it embodies Conor’s personality as it ebbs and flows to the tunes around him, especially those of Raphina and his brother.
The young cast here gives a splendid performance all around, especially capturing the untempered attitude and crude language that are so characteristic of students at an all-boys’ authoritarian school. What makes Sing Street so much more refreshing than many other films about teenagers are the deeply natural performances by its young actors, who respond with wonderful comedic timing to the experienced actors around them. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton and Mark McKenna (who plays Eamon, the guitarist) all take to their on-screen and on-video personas without hesitation, and are easily the most fleshed out characters in the film. John Carney is special in his handling of the teenage band comedy, mostly having it set in the foreground of family drama at each of their homes. Pulling off the task of playing a character playing another character with absolute authenticity, the actors do not forget the tinges of immaturity in the lyrics which has sufficient awkwardness and deference for rhythm that is sounds like it was actually written and performed by teenage kids in Dublin.
Though at least one is made every year, coming-of-age films rarely shed their microscopic worldview of teenage love, pop culture and friendship to allow us a more rounded image of the central character. Carney, however, makes it a point that the audience not simply see Conor’s dreams and desires, but also all that holds him back home and from breaking free. It is often seen that films about breaking free strongly advocate the case of chasing your ambition and conveniently ignore the bonds that plead against it, especially those of family. Sing Street does an incredible job in portraying all aspects of Conor’s life, equally sharing time between his band, Raphina, and the volatile home environment, appreciating the teenager’s keen eye for observation and understanding more than they are usually given credit for. In fact, part of the reason why Conor wins the audience over is the amount he cares about his family, who – with the exception of his brother Brandon – has always neglected him in light of their own personal problems, and how his own dreams aren’t limited to himself, but carry along with it dreams for his parents and his brother. This is particularly evident from the band’s performance of ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’, where he dreams of an American school prom from the ‘50s, and spends more time smiling at his reunited parents and his confident brother than the girl he loves. Conor is a hero of teenage, cut from the same cloth as the protagonists of John Hughes’ films, who understands and feels the troubles of not just his peers, but those of the ‘mature’ adults around him.
Sing Street is a curiously entertaining film about teenage, expressed through bold music videos, a happy-sad package of pure determination and real human relationships both within and outside homes. Fuelled by raw performances and the powerful rock and roll tunes, Carney’s latest is a truly fulfilling experience at the movies, equally emotional and entertaining in every second. Two of the major themes in the film are seen to weave around each other: just as Conor’s story is about standing up and making your voice heard despite the mockery and harassment from all sides, Brandon too reveals a story of suppression and ridicule, which has led him to the place he is. The truest bond in Sing Street is not between the lovers Conor and Raphina, but that between the brothers Conor and Brandon, as the latter stays Conor’s emotional support and guide, hoping to see his brother chase the dreams he was not allowed to. Both have been victims of harassment all their life, and it takes true love to give your all to see another succeed, despite your own depression. In a home where the parents are too preoccupied with their own failure at love, Brandon is Conor’s father, mother, sibling and an extension of his own self, risking his own shots and life for his brother, something he is sure to be ridiculed for. As Brandon tells Conor as part of his feedback for his first attempt at a music video, “Rock and roll is a risk. You risk being ridiculed.”