It's been a banner year for "separating the art from the artist". There's the ongoing dilemma of Woody Allen, who recently released his first TV series on Amazon (following on his latest film "Cafe Society") and of course, there's the neverending story of Nate Parker's rape scandal. Earlier this summer, another lauded filmmaker John Carney showed his bad side when he publicly and needlessly criticized Keira Knightley's acting in "Begin Again". But as with the other notorious men above (among others), Carney has managed to make the work speak for itself, delivering another wonderful film with "Sing Street".
Set in Dublin during the 1980s, "Sing Street" chronicles a pivotal year in the life of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a youngest son of a crumbling middle class family. With both his parents struggling financially and their marriage doomed to fail, Conor bears the brunt of the family's woes when he is moved from private school to public school to cut costs. As expected, the transition takes a lot of adjustment, as the strict Catholic school rules and the intimidating all-male atmosphere makes his first days a nightmare. His first new friend Darren (Ben Carolan, a terrific newcomer) recommends he find a coping mechanism, which soon comes in the form of the beautiful aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton, a perfectly cast "Helen of Troy" type). In an effort to impress her, he claims that he's starting a band and needs her to be in his music video. With no way out of this lie, Conor is forced to live up to his bold claims. But with the help of Darren, his musically-inclined older brother Brendan and a few eager recruits, the dream becomes a reality. And the rest as they say, is history, as Conor goes through a eventful year filled with music, love, friendship and family.
Taking a deep plunge into the world of an Irish teen in an 80s high school, Carney crafts a truly winning film. As befitting the time period, the hair, clothes, makeup and of course, the music make a defiant statement. Through the eyes of Conor, we feel the excitement of the wave of change about to come, sparked by the emergence of the music video and its associated MTV culture. And as with any John Carney film, the awesome soundtrack is inseparable from the film's storytelling.
But what makes the film so rewarding isn't due to only the fabulous visual design, rebellious spirit and endearing romance (Walsh-Peelo and Boynton make excellent screen partners). Indeed, the story's true brilliance lies in how the these aspects are underscored by melancholy. The clothing and makeup for example, serve to rebuke the school's aggressively strict rules. Meanwhile the vibrancy of these young characters is fueled by a desire to escape the angst of broken homes, thwarted dreams and the general oppressive atmosphere of their small, puritanical town.
At one point Raphina explains to Conor the virtues of embracing the state of being "happy-sad". And this oxymoron is the perfect way to describe what makes "Sing Street" so special. Sometimes the most rewarding feel-good movies are the ones with a dose of harsh reality underneath the bliss.