Go Big or . . . Trust Me, Just Go Big!
by Andrew Collins
It may be best to understand the charmed brilliance of Sing Street by considering the slice of life that The Sandlot captures from 1950s America. Apply the relationship to 1980s Ireland, and you’ll end up with something like this latest effort from writer and director John Carney. It’s one of those films that uses a quirky cast of characters to capture the essence of a generation that fought through all-boys Catholic school, grappled with dysfunctional families, longed for life in London, and turned to rock music to find solace and escape.
In a truly wonderful inciting incident, we see the meeting of two hurting souls – Raphina (Lucy Boynton) the victim of domestic abuse; Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), the victim of an impending divorce. They present themselves to each other as a London-bound model and lead singer of a local band. She hasn’t done a day of professional modeling in her life, and he doesn’t even have a band, but who needs to know? Would she like to be in a music video? He asks. She’s noncommittal and aloof, of course, but for some inscrutable reason (Is it pity? Intrigue? We men may never know) she gives him her digits. Suddenly the reality hits him like a thunderbolt: I need to start a band.
The scene is comically superficial, but it’s true to human nature. Who masks her pain and insecurity with an aloof nonchalance better than a beautiful young woman? What is the average-looking guy’s one hope of having a shot with the hottest girl on the block? Being in a band, of course. And so the seeds of inspiration are planted.
It’s not hard to imagine the purist responding from the peanut gallery with a snide remark about how true art isn’t a contrived means to an end. Perhaps not in the long run, but consider the possible reasons why one might first pick up a paintbrush, start scribbling in a journal, or learn how to play piano in the first place. What makes those artistic pursuits endure? Oftentimes it is the intended audience. The bards sing over love won and lost. The future rock star picks up a guitar to woo chicks. Take a shot at impressing a girl, and you just might write the anthem of a generation.
Sing Street’s refusal to take its characters too seriously is, paradoxically, what makes it a seriously good movie. It doesn’t get lost in their literary complexity, but it doesn’t shortchange them either. These lads and lasses are unambiguously youths – still green in their endeavors. They don’t have the sense to know that just because there’s a cowboy in the Village People doesn’t mean you should dress up as one too. The art they create isn’t great, by any critical standard, but the charm of their creative endeavors is impossible to resist.
“Did ‘The Sex Pistols’ know how to play? You don’t need to know how to play. Who are you, ‘Steely Dan’?” Conor’s older brother (and implicit mentor figure Brendan – played by Jack Reynor) tells him.
“Rock and roll is a risk,” Brendan adds in another memorable moment of pontification. “You risk being ridiculed.”
It’s one of several lines in which this cocky older-brother wisdom actually turns out to be a pretty sound observation. There’s a heartfelt sincerity in Brendan’s counsel that bleeds into Conor. It borders on caricature, but the notes it sounds are true. These are exactly the kinds of things that a college-dropout older brother would say, and of course his little brother is going to run with them as if they were gospel truth. As a result, lines that would normally have set off the cheese alarms find their mark.
“It’s for our art, Cosmo,” Raphina says after jumping in the ocean, clothes and all, during a shot for their music video. “You never do anything halfway. Do you understand that?”
And again: “You have to be able to be happy when you’re sad. It’s a happy-sad. That’s what being in love is.”
In most contexts these lines are mere truisms, but for Conor they are revelations that transform him into Cosmo the music artist. We’ve all had those breakthrough moments of discovery in life, those sublime existential glimpses that make you want to scream, Yes, this is what’s it’s really like! This is what it’s all about!
Youth is about setting the stage for life and setting a course, not finding resolution, and that’s exactly what Sing Street does. It lays down tracks for the demo tapes to pitch to the studio, it fires up a high school romance that may or may not flame out in a few years, it takes the epic dig at the killjoys among the local authorities, it stands upon the fractured foundation of divorced and abusive parents and takes a leap for the stars. Whether Cosmo and Raphina light up the stage or crash land in a London gutter is anyone’s guess, but really it doesn’t matter. This is a rock and roll story – Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer.
“It doesn’t make a difference if they make it or not, because they’ve got each other, and that’s enough to give it a shot!”