If you’re a filmmaker, chances are you’re going to be shoved into a pigeon-hole. Your best hope is to find a fun, comfy one and maybe make the best of it.
John Carney’s “first, best destiny,” as Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” might put it, is making street musicals. “Once” was the musical movie epitome of romantic longing, love expressed through music when no other outlet is open to you. Even “Begin Again” crackled with music-at-the-moment-of-creation life.
“Sing Street” is the latest delight he’s added to his pigeon-hole, a infectious, effervescent coming-of-age comedy about Irish lads trying to make their mark during rock/pop’s “New Romantics” era. All because the lead singer has a crush on an older woman.
Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) should never have set eyes on her. But his parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy, Aiden Gillen) are fighting over money, so it’s no more Jesuit school for him. He’s off to Synge Street’s cut-rate Catholic school chaos, administered by bullies, with bullies-in-training filling the ranks of its students.
A pretty and posh boy like him will never fit in, which is why Conor makes up and sings songs, to drown his sorrows and mask the racket of his parents’ matches.
But Raphina gets his Irish eyes smiling. On an impulse, he offers to put this pouty, 16-year-old would-be model in a music video. It’s Dublin. It’s 1985. U2 did it. How hard can it be?
The ginger haired squirrel Darren (Ben Carolan), a hustler-in-the-making, will be their manager. He takes Conor straight to the Master of All Instruments Eamon (Mark McKenna). Darren insists they bring on the only “golliwog” (Irish racist for “black guy”) in school (Percy Chamburuka) on as keyboardist. A couple of other kids join in.
And they call themselves “Sing Street,” a pun on the name of their school.
Naturally, there’s an older, music-loving brother, given a fine stoner-bluster by Jack Reynor of “A Royal Night Out.” He’s a wise, but aimless drop-out, and he pulls out records and pushes Conor in the right direction — Hall & Oates, yes. Genesis? God, no.
“Rock and roll is a risk. You risk being made a fool of.”
The girl has a boyfriend. But he’s into Genesis. No problem.
Raphina (Lucy Boynton) makes a fine muse, with her Sheena Easton hair and ’80s Madonna-wear. She prods the lovestruck kid to learn the “happy sad” state of mind that makes a great pop song.
So the boys drop their attempts at covering Duran Duran and Conor, renamed “Cosmo” by Raphina, writes songs with Eamon. Raphina also plays around with his look. He’s already been picked on for being “gay” by his hateful classmates. One day, he’s John Taylor from Duran Duran. The next, Rick Astley. Can A Flock of Seagulls be far behind?
Carney tosses in a little Catholic sadism (Don Wycherly plays the brutish priest in charge of the anarchic school) and the obligatory bullied-kid-turned-bully-himself (Ian Kenny).
Truthfully, all Carney was going for here was a sort of “Commitments” lite, even casting Kennedy from that 1991 Alan Parker hit as Conor’s mom.
Thus, “Sing Street” skips through many of the tropes of such musicals, and gives short shrift to every character save for the three at the very center of the story — Conor, Raphina and Brendan.
The ’80s Golden Age of Music Videos/New Romantics Era setting is strictly for costume kitsch value and upbeat pop for the lads to draw their inspiration from.
But the tunes, co-written by Carney, are catchy, sweet and fun. And the kids’ under-polished performance of them (and DIY videos) add to the charm.
So even though “Sing Street” covers familiar ground, its director knows how to make his pigeon-hole adorable. The address’s charms win you over in the end.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including strong language and some bullying behavior, a suggestive image, drug material and teen smoking
Running time: 1:46