In 2007, a director named John Carney, former bassist for Irish rock outfit The Frames, brought the world a low-budget indie film called Once. As I previously elaborated on my old blog MusicBlogFunPartyTime, Once told the story of a budding relationship between two Dublin-based musicians, presented in a pseudo-musical style in which characters would periodically break into song. These sequences were held together by Once’s almost-romance premise, itself having been filmed in a low-key cinema verite method that felt somewhat like a documentary at times. With a stunning soundtrack and excellent, natural performances by stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Once was a triumph for all involved, a success that eventually garnered Hansard & Irglova an Oscar in 2008 for Best Original Song (the hit, “Falling Slowly”), as well as a Grammy nomination that same year for the soundtrack as a whole.
Year later, Carney would again tap into his musical roots for Begin Again, which now saw him armed with a bigger budget, an A-list cast including Mark Ruffalo, Kiera Knightley, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, and a setting in New York City. The story of Gretta (Knightley), a brokenhearted musician, and Dan, the washed up record label head (Ruffalo) who sees success in her, Begin Again owed much to Once, which sees Dan assisting Gretta as she records an album on the streets of NYC whilst learning a few things about himself, as well as his relationship with his estranged wife (Keener) & daughter (Steinfeld). Begin Again, while nowhere near as memorable as Once, still had a lot to offer, and would frequently redeem any lackluster scenes (usually involving James Corden, playing a just-as-irritating version of himself) with a killer musical performance and/or some great dialogue between Ruffalo & Knightley. Even Mos Def, as Ruffalo’s record label partner Saul, does a decent job, and much like Once, Begin Again also received an Academy Award nomination in 2015 for Best Original Song (for the Levine penned, “Lost Stars”). Plus, the score was written by Gregg Alexander-remember him? He was this guy.
With Sing Street, Carney has returned in many ways to the formula which made Once the outstanding gem that it is, by shifting the setting back to Ireland and again surrounding the love story at its heart with great music. Set in the 1980s, Sing Street’s premise is simple-in an effort to garner the affections of an orphaned model, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a schoolboy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) decides to assemble a band, Sing Street, so as to have her appear in the group’s debut music video. In the process, Conor, sporting the nickname, “Cosmo”, discovers a genuine knack for music, an escape from the dissolving marriage of his parents and a release following his aversion to the underwhelming environment of his new school & dictator-like reign of his principal (Don Wycherley).
With no apparent big names rounding out the cast, Sing Street has only its list of unknown actors & actresses, along with its soundtrack, to drive the film forward, which it accomplishes in phenomenal fashion. Although the cinematography and camera work overall is far more polished than that seen in Once, carried over to an extent from Begin Again, the acting once more feels just as natural, even as one attempts to decipher the thick accents present through the film. Boynton and Walsh-Peelo bring an innocence and earnestness to their performances, while Jack Reynor as Conor’s older, burnout brother Brendan steals every scene he’s in. I eagerly await any film Reynor appears in next, while Boynton is already rumored to play Iris West in the upcoming film adaptation of DC’s The Flash.
The music of Sing Street also appropriately fits the era depicted on screen, a feat accomplished in and of itself by never overwhelming the audience with pop culture references (other than a few welcome mentions of Back to the Future) and thus giving the film a timeless feel. With a few tastes of Duran Duran, Joe Jackson and Hall & Oates largely kept in the background, the outstanding original tracks are highlighted marvelously, such as the period-perfect, “The Riddle of the Model” and, “Drive It Like You Stole It”, arguably the best song on a soundtrack full of top-notch tunes.
Ultimately, there’s not much more to say about Sing Street-what you’ve read above largely encompasses the film, one that hits many of the same beats as earlier entries in Carney’s filmography. This, however, is not a bad thing, as Carney has proven himself to have a true talent and a passion for music that influences his films in the best way possible. By tweaking certain elements, a story that might seem similar to those who have seen Once, Begin Again and now Sing Street feels fresh each time, especially when paired with consistently great soundtracks that both assist their films while standing on their own as great music in their own right. I’m certain Carney has more brilliant stories to tell, and if they’re anything like what we’ve seen so far, I’ll be there, ready to be captivated once more.