Sunday, April 10, 2016

'Sing Street' review

In fourth grade, my friends and I started a band. Of course, I didn't have any musical talent. I quit piano two years earlier and had made no other attempts to learn an instrument. My friend played drums and he had a group of other friends who would comprise the rest of the band. I was going to be the manager, the agent hotshot who would coordinate our meteoric rise to success. We planned the whole thing out. I pulled out my school planner and began to set up our entire world tour, from Los Angeles to Topeka to Tokyo. It's rather hilarious that I still remember some of the exact cities that we planned on visiting, but it's just absolutely embedded in my brain. Nearly 8 years later, it's still some of the most fun I've ever had. This all occurred during a year where I particularly hated going to school, so it provided something to keep my mind off things. Class was boring and lame and putting a band together was fun. It was a diversion. It kept me entertained. I'm not even sure we had a name for this band, but we sure acted like we did.

We planned to send a demo tape to a record company, and I kept pressing my friend to get all of our music together. He kept putting it off and in the back of my head, I knew what that meant. I knew that my crazy dream of creating a nationally recognized band was going down the tubes. I knew that it wasn't going to happen. But I didn't want to think about that. I remember sharing all of this with our teacher, who listened along patiently. She knew that our "band" was nothing more than a dream, and that we definitely wouldn't be going on a nationwide tour anytime soon. But for us, it was real. It fell apart by the end of that week, of course. There was never really a band in the first place. And yet, for that fleeting moment, it felt like something that could actually happen. But in the real world, it couldn't.

Sing Street exists in a world where that dream can come true. Some critics have called it "wish fulfillment" and I guess that's true. Sing Street does basically fulfill a childhood fantasy of mine and in a realistic scenario, the events of this film probably would never happen. But I don't think director John Carney wants to live in that world. His world is a world of hope, of dreams, of finding love and finding purpose for your life. And yet, Sing Street doesn't operate in a fantasy world. The film is grounded in its take on bullying, on finding yourself, and on the high school experience in general. The magic is that it doesn't wallow in the pain and sadness, the crippling loneliness and emptiness that comes with that crucial time in life. It takes all of life's dreck and channels it into music, into raw passion, into Conor's ultimate purpose in life.

Sing Street is the most purely enjoyable film that I've seen in a very long time (possibly ever). It's a joyful, mesmerizing experience that I don't think I'll ever forget. In short, I fell in love with Sing Street harder than I have with a film in a very, very long time. Going in, I figured it would be the kind of film that I would be susceptible to. I like music, I like the idea of forming a band, and Sundance indies are usually my speed. I figured it would be fun and light and a little shallow, with not much to say in regards to themes. I was hopeful that it would connect to my life in a way, but I hadn't seen the trailer, so I didn't know what to expect.

And ultimately, I was blindsided by Sing Street. It spoke to me in a way that was personal and immediate. It's a wonderful film that deserves to be mentioned alongside the best teen movies and the best musical movies ever made. On every level, this movie is a masterpiece. From the instant classic songs to the visual palette to the acting, it's wonderful. But there's no way to understate the impact that it had on me. Watching this movie was like a shot in the arm. I walked into Sing Street feeling kind of lost, in the middle of some soul-searching. I walked out feeling like I had a better of understanding of life. Maybe that'll sound like hyperbole to some people, but to me, it's a perfect description of my experience.

I'm just a bit older than Conor (played brilliantly by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) but so many of his experiences are completely universal. From start to finish, Sing Street is his story. When the movie opens, Conor's parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) have hit some rough waters and are low on money during an economic recession in 1980's Dublin. They decide to move Conor from his current private school to a different Catholic school, thrusting him into a brand new environment. When he arrives, it's pretty hostile. Bullied by the bizarrely motivated Barry (Ian King), Conor is left to find his place in the colorfully boisterous school, led by the strict and maniacal Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley).

But after a while, Conor starts to make some friends. He meets Darren (Ben Carolan), a short spitfire who shows him the ropes in the wild environment. Most importantly, Conor meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton). He first sees her standing on the corner of a street near the school, cigarette dangling from her lips. And like that, he's in love. He gets her number by asking her to be a model in his band, which unfortunately doesn't exist. But with the help of Darren, Conor meets Eamon (Mark McKenna), Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice) and together, they form Sing Street. With the help of his loving brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), Conor finds a passion in life and seizes his moment. It's his time take control of the school, win the girl and stick it to the man. And he's gonna drive it like he stole it.

Sing Street is one of those movies that is just impossible to dislike. It has everything you could want from this kind of movie. Stellar performances, great direction and script, catchy songs- it's the full package. It's a crowd-pleaser of the highest degree, which is demonstrated by the fact that when the movie ended at the advance screening I was at, the audience practically erupted in applause. I've never seen anything like that before. I sat in my seat stunned and just kinda stayed there for a few moments. Once I walked out of the theater, I had no idea what to do with myself. I just wanted to see the movie again and again. Sing Street is so incredibly satisfying on a basic narrative and character level, with endearing people that you just want to spend time with.

John Carney has been known for making musical dramas before, but I can't say that I'm familiar with either Once or Begin Again. After this, I'm definitely making some plans to check those two movies out. Carney is the reason this movie works. He wrote the honest and emotional screenplay, directed the film and had a huge influence on the movie's musical soundtrack (which will be on repeat for months on my iPhone). Carney does just about everything right with this movie. Everything is filmed with energy and pizzazz, but also a raw power that can't be matched by any other film that I've seen recently. The tunes are catchy and the characters are so well-developed in just about every way, giving the movie a flow that is remarkable.

But I'll be honest, the power of the characters is probably due to the fact that the cast is top-notch. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is a total newcomer, but if he doesn't get more roles in the immediate aftermath of this movie, there is no justice in this world. He's likable on nearly every level and you relate to Conor (aka Cosmo) in just about every way. He's simultaneously dynamic and shy and his character has a really complete arc over the course of the movie. He's complemented terrifically by Lucy Boynton, who plays the magical and lovable Raphina. Boynton is fantastic, bringing plenty of layers to a complex character that could have been done in a very simple way. It's easy to see why Cosmo falls in love with Raphina, and I think that's so critical to the movie.

Even though the two leads are mesmerizing, the supporting cast somehow manages to be just as good. The five supporting band members are hysterical and charming, led by the film's other breakout superstar, Mark McKenna. He has so much talent, charisma and chemistry and he creates one of the most effective dynamics in the whole movie. Also phenomenal is Ian King, who plays the bully-turned-muscle, a character that provides a crucial arc in the development of Sing Street's popularity. They feel like a real band that works together, and that's a major part of the movie's unique charm. But there's one other performance outside of the core that deserves plenty of recognition, and that's Jack Reynor's turn as Brendan. In many ways, he's the movie's secret weapon. You expect a lot of the themes about growing up and falling in love and so on, but there's a surprising touch that I would never have seen coming.

In reality, Sing Street is a movie about success and failure and the relationship of two brothers. Sure, it's about falling in love and the power of music and finding friends and growing up in the 1980s. But at its heart, at its deepest core, Sing Street is a movie about two brothers. One is a failure. He's a burnout, someone who had a chance at greatness but couldn't follow through. He spends his time smoking pot in his parents' attic, listening to music and roaming around town with no direction. He's what we all fear we might become when we're my age. The other brother is someone who is wide-eyed and optimistic. He falls head-over-heels in love, and is extremely talented. He has the potential to go somewhere. And for much of Sing Street, especially towards the end, the movie tells the story of how these two contrasting values evolve to create a relationship that will last forever. When you reach the end of the movie and see Brendan's reaction to a certain event, you feel his genuine excitement, his feeling of success.

In many ways, this is John Carney's most brilliant move. He takes a premise that could be simple and makes it about something more. Everybody in Sing Street is looking for love and for a place to belong and for friendships, but they're also looking to be something. The characters in this movie don't come from good places. They're orphans. They're from broken homes. They're poor. And yet, they're able to come together to form something pure and beautiful and fun. That's the beauty of Sing Street and I think it's a vital part of why this is such a wonderful film. In its essence, it's a movie about hope. It made me laugh, it brought me to the verge of tears and it made me want to stand up and cheer. It's the best movie of the year so far, and if it gets topped, we're in for a special 2016. I'm fully confident in saying that this is one of the most powerful and amazing film experiences I've ever had. Thank you, John Carney. This is one that I'll treasure forever.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                             (10/10)

Images courtesy of The Weinstein Company

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