Directed by John Carney
Opens April 15
In Duran Duran’s music video for “Rio,” Simon Le Bon and his bandmates sale on a yacht in Antigua; they wear silken boxy suits with colored undershirts and matching skinny ties. Standing upright in a stiff wind, they lip sync their love pop song, released in 1982, as gusts inflate their sails and carry them across the sea.
The song is fueled by Rio—a beautiful woman, the object of their desire—her dark eyes, her exposed skin in a high-cut bathing suit, her weird rainbow body paint, and, above all, by the singular excitement and hope that the sight of an unattainable woman can implant in a man’s hopes—a phenomenon that is all the more powerful when the rest of your life looks fairly bleak.
This, in a less glamorous Irish setting, is the story behind Sing Street, the latest film from director John Carney (Once and Begin Again), which pits a young Irish boy, down on his luck, against the challenge of winning the beautiful girl. The boy is Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who, sitting at home one night with his bickering parents, drip of a sister, and fun but deadbeat older brother, catches the video for “Rio” on TV. Conor stares at it in awe of Simon Le Bon, with his golden curls and bumbling-idiot attempts to win Rio over. And even though he fails—thwarted by an unfortunately placed banana peel and a feisty crab—Conor thinks the video is perfect. If only he could make something similarly glamorous, he realizes, maybe he could win the girl of his dreams, too.
That girl is Raphina, a pretty, parentless teenager who lives in a girls’ home across the street from Connor’s school, Sing Street. Despite its upbeat name, Sing Street is no joy. Conor is sent there after his parents have fallen on tough financial times. He is the new boy on campus, without enough money to buy the right shoes, and an immediate target to bullies and of a priest who tries to molest him. So when Conor spots Rafina—who stands statuesquely on her home stoop across the street, dressed in incredible 80s attire—she becomes his one beacon of hope for a better life. He may not have a band, or even know how to play an instrument, but if he could mange to do both—and convince Rafina to star in his music video—she might be his.
Beyond Conor’s improbable though successful formation of a band with the help of outsider classmates at Sing Street and concurrent pursuit of Rafina, this is also story of brotherhood. Conor learns the technicalities of playing and singing music from awfully nice classmates who actually play instruments very well, but his spiritual musical education comes from his older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor). Brendan is in his early 20s and still lives at home, spending most of his time in a dark bedroom and a sad ocean of lost hopes; but Brendan also has an extensive and impressive record collection.
And he is shockingly good to Conor, despite his own slightly ambiguous failures in life. If Brendan can help Conor become a better informed musician by giving him lessons in The Cure, and Joy Division, Conor might have a shot at winning a girl like Rafina, Brendan tells him. In the end—through one magnanimous act—Brendan does becomes a hero to Conor. His own life might have failed, is the message, but his selfless brotherly love is some form of salvation.
As far as Brendan is concerned, this resolution feels flat, and is kind of sad. Brendan comes off as an actually cool and smart dude with great musical taste and real potential; his greatest trouble seems to be that he smokes too much pot. This, in addition to the unlikely and meteoric rise of Conor’s band—and his remarkably successful pursuit of Rafina—at times rings cheesy and false.
And yet, Sing Street is an overall treat. We are seldom given films whose main intention is to make us feel good about life and hopeful for the future. This one does that. The 80s pop songs that play throughout the film, and that largely set its tone, are good and enjoyable. And maybe the idea that an unflaggingly optimistic and overly simplistic music video could inspire such great hopes and effort is not something to scoff at, but rather to emulate. It at least served the Lalor brothers quite well.