Sing Street is a film not only set in the 80s, but one which very much feels like it could’ve been made in the 80s. It is not quite nostalgic and not quite modern, but instead it tells a universal, human story in a nostalgic setting. The plot is familiar to movies of its time as it pits the rock and roll attitude of young people against the traditional values of the establishment.
The film begins when its protagonist, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), is forced by his parents to change schools. The expense of his private school has caused too much financial strain on his family, as the film as the film is set during economic depression in Ireland at the time. This event sets off Conor’s path to rebellion. When his new school greets him with bullies, cruel teachers, and unnecessary rules, and his home life is filled with arguing between his parents and his mother’s infidelity, Conor begins to search for meaning. He finds it when his brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) shows him a music video which opens up his eyes to the artistry involved in being in a rock band.
The introduction to Sing Street moves quickly. Its rapid progression from topic to topic suggests that director John Carney understood he was moving through familiar territory for the audience. He gets to the emotional core of his story quickly rather than lingering on genre tropes that the audience has seen in so many films that came before Sing Street. The only trope which he arguably spends too much time on is that of the school bully. The character doesn’t offer anything substantial to the film and primarily serves to stress Conor’s alienation in the early scenes. Carney only wastes a few minutes of screen time on this fairly needless plot line, but it was a few minutes that could’ve been better used elsewhere.
When Conor decides to start a band to impress Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a pretty girl who lives near his school, he describes his musical style as being a “Futurist”. He goes on to explain that the band will not be focused on nostalgia, but will instead look forward to the style of the future. This is in contrast to the often nostalgic feel of the music in the film, but also describes its modern attitude and approach to the lives of the young people.
In one scene, Raphina cries as she listens to a recording of one of the band’s new songs. As she begins to well up with tears, she wipes off her lipstick after spending an evening with her then-boyfriend. This introduces a running theme throughout the film, which is the process of Raphina removing her mask. This is played out both literally and metaphorically. As Sing Street progresses Raphina opens up more and more to Conor. Whereas she begins as a guarded person, she evolves into someone who can speak candidly with him. The makeup she wears throughout the film’s progression reflects this, as her real face and true beauty shine through increasingly.
A scene that really displays the film’s style is when the band is rehearsing for their first gig at a school dance. Conor intends to simulate an American prom from the 50s, an idea he got from watching Back to the Future. As the band sings, he stares at the door waiting for Raphina to arrive. When he imagines her stepping through the door, the room transforms into an actual 50s prom with dozens of kids in attendance, and with everyone in appropriate 50s attire. In his fantasy, his parents are happily together and dancing, the abusive head of his school is doing cartwheels, and his brother arrives clean-cut and riding a motorcycle. This scene is mirrored at the end of the film when the band is actually performing at the dance and Conor begins singing a slow song that he wrote for Raphina. He anxiously stares at the same door, hoping that she will walk in.
Despite the serious themes that Sing Street explores, it is remarkably fun and lighthearted. Carney does a fine job of balancing out the dark moments with positiveness and an upbeat soundtrack. The ending of the film is strangely triumphant as Conor and Raphina sail to England in a small boat owned by Conor’s family. As they battle the strong waters, a massive cruise liner passes them by, and the two wave at the huge mass above them. They are two people in a small boat in a very large ocean, but here they are prepared to brave the storm of the unknown.