With Sing Street, writer-director John Carney’s cinematic themes—budding musicians and the music they strive to create and perform, with the possibility of romance always hovering in the air—remain the same, but the melodies keep changing, though not for the better. His 2007 debut, Once, may have been a sentimental fantasy at its core, but by applying a handheld vérité style to the material and encouraging a sense of improvisatory looseness from his actors, the film exuded a feeling of lived-in honesty that refreshed the story’s clichés. Some of that attention to realism could still be found in his bigger-budget follow-up, Begin Again, but the film ultimately felt more sugary, especially in its simplistic take on the eternal conflict between maintaining artistic integrity and selling out for the sake of a wider audience—and it’s no surprise that Carney was for the former.
Now, with Sing Street, all traces of grit have been scrubbed away in favor of relentlessly crowd-pleasing slickness. It hardly matters that Carney’s latest is a period piece, set in Dublin in 1985 during a period of economic turmoil that saw many Irish leave the country for better opportunities in London—or that Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and the rest of his teenage band deal more in Second British Invasion-style synth-pop and new wave than the acoustic balladry at the center of Carney’s previous films. There’s barely anything new here that Carney didn’t dramatize more incisively before.
Conor’s own personal circumstances aren’t even terribly original. As a result of his ever-bickering parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) not having enough money to keep him in a Jesuit school, he’s forced to attend Synge Street, a lesser Christian Brothers school where he endures the usual indignities, especially from the bullying Barry (Ian Kenny) and a headmaster, Baxter (Don Wycherley), so bent on uniformity that he punishes Conor for not wearing black shoes like the rest of the students. Naturally, music becomes his outlet for letting off steam—but only when he blurts out to Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a strikingly dressed and styled young woman he notices across the street from school one day, that he’s in a band about to shoot a music video that he begins to seriously entertain the notion of becoming a musician. Conor subsequently, and with the help of a wannabe business entrepreneur, Darren (Ben Carolan), recruits fellow school peers like multi-talented instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) to try to turn that fib into reality.
It’s a tribute to how utterly uninterested Carney is in dramatizing genuine struggle that he can’s even be bothered to depict the step-by-step development of these young musicians; in his fantasy vision of the world, all it takes is a few records loaned by Conor’s brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), for him to grasp the basics of songwriting, and one long day for Conor’s band to learn the finer points of making a music video. Perhaps actual effort would only distract from Conor’s real goal out of all this: to get the girl. And whereas said girl in both Once and Begin Again exhibited a sense of agency, Raphina is only as a glorified catalyst for Conor’s maturation.
Raphina, who lives in an all-girls home and says she’s planning to go to London to kickstart a modeling career, seems to act entirely in relation to the dictates of patriarchal ideology, but it isn’t as if any of the other characters are less stereotypically drawn—most egregiously the one black band member, Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), who, after an introduction in which he punctures Conor, Darren, and Eamon’s racist assumptions about him, fades into the background, framed only in the context of Conor’s coming of age and given less of a personality than Raphina, Eamon, and much of the rest of the cast.
Sing Street sadly reveals the limits of a filmmaker coasting on sincerity and high spirits alone. John Carney may wholeheartedly believe in the power of music to bring people of different walks of life together and even pave the way for a brighter future, but instead of allowing us to reach such a conclusion organically, he’s now hectoring us instead.