Friday, 20 May 2016

New romantics: "Sing Street"

It's become apparent that John Carney is something of a single-issue filmmaker. This need not necessarily be a limitation: without the persistent, laser-beam focus of Claude Lanzmann, so many of the Holocaust's nuts and bolts might have been left unexamined, and - lest that seem an overly dramatic point of comparison - perhaps we need a Judd Apatow to pick over the pitfalls and occasional pleasures of modern love, ever-changing as they are. Carney's interest lies in music: a filmmaker for a moment when it often seems as though everyone you encounter is walking round with headphones on - either to keep something within themselves, or to shut the world out - he's thus far demonstrated a particular fascination with the ways songs can bring disparate people together, whether on the streets of Dublin (2007's Once) or the fringes of the American recording industry (2013's Begin Again).

His latest, Sing Street, is in one sense an origin story, one in which Carney mulls his own past, and how a young lad might develop an interest in music in the first place. Almost inevitably, a girl is involved. Teenage hero Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a newly arrived outsider at a Christian Brothers school in impoverished mid-80s Dublin who elects to form a band despite a total lack of prior musical experience; the reason is that he's on a promise to Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an older girl he's spied on the steps outside his school, and - with a producer's instincts - invited to appear in one of the group's videos. (Great albums have been composed for less.) What follows is a very simple, not unfamiliar tale. Conor auditions and assembles a close-knit core of fellow dropouts, pariahs and geeks; they start to put together a few riffs, a rudimentary image, even eventually a demo tape - building, in other words, where Keira Knightley's heartbroken twentysomething in Begin Again was obliged to rebuild.

Yet Carney succeeds in finding an entirely new context for this rock 'n' roll rise-and-fall-and-rise again, sketched in his first images here: news reports of Irishmen and women quitting their depressed homeland in droves for a new beginning on the English mainland. Music in Sing Street is less a catharsis than an escape from unhappy homes, institutionalised cruelty and poverty, adolescent awkwardness. For Conor and his cohorts, as yet too young to even consider moving out of their parents' place, those early Duran Duran videos, beamed into beigey-grey living rooms via the weekly Top of the Pops, are the height of aspirational glamour - and when you're faced with being punched on the nose and having your Mars Bar nicked off you by some mardy arse in the school tuckshop, why wouldn't you dream of getting to swank around on a yacht with Christy Turlington?

Certain shortcuts are visible, and audible. It's somewhat implausible that the band Sing Street - a play on Synge Street, the boys' alma mater - should sound so good so quickly, for one. The songs were written by Gary Clark, late of Danny Wilson ("Mary's Prayer"), and they strike the ear as very much the work of a fiftysomething musician with several Top 40 hits under his belt, not spoddy boys setting work-book poetry to half-inched guitar riffs. Carney's on surer ground when describing his hero's musical education: older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) nudging his sibling in the direction of an idea of music-as-Art, the lazy afternoons spent in friends' bedrooms listening to their Jam and Joe Jackson LPs. What Sing Street nails in these sequences is the way we figure out what to listen to at a certain age, and in so doing figure out something of ourselves. (One might note that anybody exposed to Jackson's "Steppin' Out" at a formative moment is going to turn out just fine.) 

More so than his breakthrough features, Sing Street is the film that best showcases Carney's assured comic touch: he elicits broad laughs from a local rogue's failed attempt at a three-point turn in a car blasting out Phil Collins, but also from such throwaway business as getting one of Conor's bandmates to open his front door while holding his pet bunny ("What you doin'?" "Just rabbit stuff.") And his great skill at accommodating different perspectives is again in evidence: one unshowy yet graceful cut reveals a late-night fraternal heart-to-heart in the kitchen is being observed by Conor's university-age sister Ann (Kelly Thornton), cutting through anything gooey by wondering whether this Raphina girl doesn't sound a tad pretentious. A lovely, genuinely lyrical scene finds the brothers observing their unhappy ma (Maria Doyle Kennedy, trailing echoes of The Commitments) through the backdoor, at which point we begin to grasp what a consolation music can be: it's what the siblings put on whenever their folks start arguing, hoping to muffle the harsher words.

There are points where the generosity of spirit gets too much, where Carney's (p)optimism becomes unmoored from anything so challenging as reality. Around the ninety-minute mark, it becomes apparent there is nothing this music cannot achieve. Get the girl! Heal the wounds left behind by divorce! Overthrow the tyranny of the Christian Brotherhood! Keeping one's headphones on too long risks turning the brain to mush, a caution that came to mind as Carney pushes his youthful leads out on the roughest-looking stretch of the Irish Sea (music can change the course of your life!) come the final movement. He means to leave us punching the air at this great escape, yet this viewer could only fear the worst: that these kids' corpses would wash up on a nearby shore within 24 hours. A song's one thing, adequate health-and-safety provision quite another. At its best, however, Sing Street serves - as did Once and Begin Again - to make music graspable for even those of us who've never been within ten feet of a Peavey amp, dramatising both how and why we're drawn to it, and what it comes to communicate about our fragile hopes and desires. Here's a film that knows a three-minute pop song often expresses something of the world, of ourselves and of others, far more succinctly and stirringly than any number of words on a page.

Sing Street opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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