Back in 2005, John Carney’s Once burned a filmic trail based almost purely on word of mouth. I sang its praises. I told everyone I knew to see it, whether or not I thought they’d actually like it because I knew they would have a friend who could use the recommendation. I learned all the songs, most especially “Falling Slowly” and “Lies” (the ultimate sing-it-at-the-top-of-your-lungs car song), and immersed myself in the music in all kinds of ways. While the story had a simple beauty to it, it was undeniably charged by the fact that the actors had a real-life relationship and even toured together. It felt like one of those stories we dream of – where music heals and helps you find that perfect love and everything works out as it’s supposed to.
But what I think myself and many others forget is that the movie didn’t exactly end with a happy ending. They didn’t end up together. Their lives were far too complicated for such a solution. Music brought them together, but it didn’t solve everything. Instead, it gave them some powerful moments that reinvigorated the rather dull, aimless lives they felt they were leading. It set them right, even as it set them apart.
Carney’s latest, the fantastic Sing Street (currently streaming on Netflix) continues that sentiment. The characters – from the main to the secondary – all are dealing with some really difficult Life Stuff. They are living in an 80’s Dublin that’s already dealing with economic strife, on top of smaller, more personal issues of divorce, controlling schools, disgusting authority figures, and people far more ready to kick than support a dream. Conor starts a band simply to impress a girl, and you know what? It works. He doesn’t just impress her, but his songs seem to bring out something in her she’s often kept locked away. She often cries to the songs. She goes for long walks in the park. She sits with it and lets it sink in like any great song can.
This is a movie not so much about the healing power of music but how it can provide that perfect momentary escape. For all the lads in the band, every time they play a song, the daily bullshit they have to deal with is temporarily held at bay. They play with such joy because, really, the alternative is far less joyous. We get to see them when they just start out, fumbling through chords and tweaked lyrics, to the final school concert in which they break everything out with confidence and catharsis. They really, truly look like they’re having the time of their lives, and their final song is a defiant shout against a truly troubling incident Will went through early on. You can see all the ways music adds value to their lives, and how it energizes and bolsters them in ways that sometimes carry offstage and sometimes remain.
I found myself utterly transfixed with this group of oddballs. I imagine Carney would have no problem suggesting this is The Commitments with younger protagonists and for a new generation, right down to the plot of making the school bully/hothead a part of the team by the end. Carney doesn’t gloss over the pain. We truly see how desperate and shitty the lives of our characters can be – especially Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and Ann (Kelly Thornton) – but we also see how hopeful they are at the end, literally riding into choppy waters in search of something greater.
I have to give special mention to Jack Raynor, who I easily dismissed after he became Another Actor in a Transformers Movie. Brendan is Conor’s older brother, cynical yet deeply caring of his brother in a way that’s not always obvious. He’s a man who knows he missed a boat and can’t quite seem to work up the courage to risk everything again. So he funnels his energy – as support when the divorce goes down and as music critic – into his younger brother, leading to a beautiful moment at the end where he is so, so happy to see someone – even if it is not him – risking their lives to follow their dreams.