The positive force of music
When I taught 100-level college writing, there were times where I would read a student’s paper and not have any clue how to respond. A professor of mine deemed these papers as the “ungradables.” I would put the paper back in the rotation to read it again later, and hope I’d have a clearer vision the next time around. (Side note: One time I was grading outside at the coast, read a paper, and exclaimed, “I don’t know what to say about this!” With impeccable timing, a seagull flew over and dropped its opinion right on top of the student’s paper.)
Music empowers him. With each new record he listens to, he changes his hair and writes a derivative song that fits with his current life.
Sometimes the ungradables needed a lot of work. Other times, they were nondescript. Then there were those that had a lot of small issues but the bigger vision of the paper ultimately carried the paper to a higher grade. Sing Street, the new movie from writer/director John Carney, sits firmly in the last category. I found myself nitpicking throughout the movie, and the star rating in my head kept fluctuating between 2 and 3.5, even a week after seeing the movie. Ultimately, I realized I wanted to see it again (and I did)—not just because I thought I would get more clarity on my opinions, but also, and mainly, because the movie is thoroughly joyful and entertaining.
This is the third of Carney’s movies in his trilogy of musicals, following Once and Begin Again. This time, Carney places the semiautobiographical film in 1985 in Dublin, where 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is faced with major changes. His parents are struggling financially and in their marriage, and they decide to send Conor to a cheaper school, the Synge Street Christian Brothers School. He faces bullying on his first day and raises the ire of Brother Baxter, the headmaster, who insists that all boys in the school wear black shoes; Conor only has brown.
Conor doesn’t let his early struggles dictate his happiness, however, and he immediately changes the course of his year—and possibly his life—by walking across the street from the school to talk to an intriguing girl named Raphina. She tells him she’s a model, and he quickly asks her if she’ll be in a video for his band. The only problem is that he doesn’t have a band. With the help of his one friend, they recruit four more boys from school, including Eamon (Mark McKenna), a music prodigy who can pretty much play any instrument. The group calls themselves Sing Street.
All along the way, Conor’s older brother Brendan (played brilliantly by Jack Reynor) feeds Conor advice about girls, which Conor largely ignores, and music, which Conor takes to heart. After hearing the band’s cover version of Duran Duran’s “Rio,” Brendan smashes the tape and says the world doesn’t need another cover band. After Conor explains that Sing Street is raw and can’t really play yet, Brendan brushes him off. “Did the Sex Pistols know how to play?” he asks. “Rock and roll is a risk. You risk being ridiculed.”
After that conversation, Conor transforms into Cosmo, a name given to him by Raphina. Music empowers him. With each new record he listens to, he changes his hair and writes a derivative song that fits with his current life. Cosmo writes songs as his parents scream at each other. The headmaster at the new school bullies him, but Cosmo turns it into a song. And as his relationship with Raphina takes complex turns, Cosmo immerses himself in listening to and writing music. His world crumbles around him, but Cosmo has never been so grounded.
Carney excels, as he did in Once and Begin Again, in developing characters that are broken but still have much to offer. Brendan is a hash-smoking college dropout who shows little evidence of any change. Raphina is essentially an orphan with a horrific upbringing. Cosmo treats both characters with the utmost respect, and learns more from them than anything he’s learning at his oppressive school.
The movie does occasionally thin itself out while trying to toggle between the relationships that Cosmo has with Brendan, Raphina, and Eamon, respectively. Raphina’s background is glossed over too much, and I wanted more scenes of Cosmo and Eamon sorting out their lives through music. As mentioned previously, there are a lot of minor problems with the movie, including the ending. Overall, however, the powerful themes of the resiliency of youth and the positive force of music endure. The response to bullying in the movie is especially refreshing. The film takes the position that although youth are ultimately responsible for their actions, they have to sift through a lot of obstacles created by others. And, there is always more room in the band.
In a trailer for the film, Carney explains the moral of the story: “No matter what happened to you as a kid—the bully would be after you, you hadn’t finished your homework, you didn’t get the girl . . . but you had the music in your headphones and you were okay.”
Ultimately, I agree, and an ungradable becomes a 3-star film. No seagull input necessary.
3 out of 4 stars. Rated PG-13 for language, lots of smoking, and bad ’80s hair. A special thanks to my 12-year-old daughter for using her movie gift card on me, allowing me to see it for a second time. She enjoyed the movie as well and it gave us a lot of material for discussions. The original songs are great ’80s throwbacks.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.