Based on John Carney’s career trajectory, from the gritty earnestness of his breakthrough Once, the torpid naiveté of Begin Again, and the saccharine simplicity of Sing Street, it’s become clear that success has steered Carney’s attitude to the sentimental. To put it plainly: it’s more agreeable to be cheerful than it is to be pissed off. So, in Sing Street, Carney’s film set in mid-80s Dublin during a period of macro-economic turmoil and micro-paternal anxieties, the cumulative stresses of the day are tidily swept under the cultural fabric. There’s no monumental Llewyn Davis-sized obstacle to be cleared here. This is not a film that illustrates the struggles of artistic hardship nor is it especially concerned with the endless hours of practice that comes with musicianship. It’s sincere, but with a motive. For as serendipitous as passages of Sing Street may be (and it’s a film that is very much after your heart), it’s insouciant bravado yearns for pathos; to impart its callow wisdom on the freedom that music provides.
The story begins with a boy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) trying to impress a girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) by forming a band. With Cosmo’s (née Conor) familial woes - a fiscally depleted household economy, a mother and father on the verge of divorce, and a stoner-dropout brother – the teen finds solace in the music of the time. Ornate with tracks by The Cure, Duran Duran, and Motörhead, Carney clearly reveres the era. From his characters shooting self-made music videos on VHS to expressing an unusual fanaticism with Back to the Future, Carney’s rose-tinted gleam of the time is in equal measures infectious and coarsely inappropriate.
There’s an odd absence of anything genuinely dramatic in Sing Street. Or rather, there’s absolutely nothing in the film that would indicate any sense of personal struggle, which is particularly perplexing given the historical context that Carney isolates his character in. But in a film about ragtag teenagers coming together to form a band, their development from greenhorns to studio-ready musicians lacks any dramatic intensity whatsoever. The strain of developing your craft, the inherent anxiety of not being good enough, is scrubbed away and replaced by superficial pronouncements of image; of essentially becoming a product.
This was a problem that plagued Begin Again, where Carney presented coffeehouse anthems as somehow more truthful rejoinders to contemporary pop music in what was a clear fascination with what makes something authentic in a commercial sphere. What made Once so affecting was that it displayed its characters in the act of creation – scenes were dedicated to the development of sound and melody with no particular emphasis made on their yield. But in Sing Street, Carney is more concerned with the final scrubbed out product, ignoring the dramatic integrity of getting there. For every scene involving Cosmo and Eamon (Mark McKenna) working together on a song, there are more scenes that show that band in fine form, in sync and overproduced. It’s not that the final product isn’t enjoyable, they’re fun tracks that fit within the 80s aesthetic that Carney is striving for, it’s that they’re centralized within a film that is so reductive of what it means to be an artist.
But it’s all warm and gooey and sentimental and palatable. It’s a sugar cookie that dissolves without protest. It’ll reward you for your passing familiarity with 80s music, and fans of Back to the Future will find its crescendo dream sequence to be especially moving. But there’s no particular urgency to its design. The lapidary composition of Carney’s original songs doesn’t translate to any particular formal aesthetic, which is, at its best, adequate. But for what it’s worth, a film like Sing Street fulfills certain middlebrow expectations that you could probably suggest that it exceeds them. It doesn’t, but in its tireless attempts for approval, it sorta comes across as pleasant.