By K.C. Raniero (Philadelphia, PA, USA)
Music transcends all boundaries, which may explain why John Carney’s film Sing Street has received such positive attention from fans of all ages. A musical dramedy based on the teenage years of Carney himself, Sing Street depicts the story of our 15-year-old protagonist and underdog, Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), as he starts a band to impress 16-year old aspiring model, Raphina (Lucy Boynton).
Despite the common boy-meet-girl trope, Sing Street, set in Dublin in 1985, separates itself from the pack by proving to be more than just a teenage love story. The plot becomes deeper throughout the film as the characters’ backstories are gradually revealed. These reveals don’t stop until the film’s very end, which keeps audiences engrossed until the last scene.
Cosmo and Raphina have more on their minds than only each other, helping the story feel more relatable than the average love story. Cosmo, a new student at Synge Street Public School, struggles to make his way through his encounters with the school bully and the abusive headmaster, all while juggling a difficult home life. Cosmo lives with his constantly fighting parents and his kind but dejected older brother in a money-strapped household. Meanwhile, Raphina lives in an orphanage and lacks even the basic luxury of a family.
While the serious issues addressed in this film do add a darker tone to the story, they also work to illustrate Dublin culture of the 1980s. Abuse in Irish Catholic schools was much more commonplace than it is today, and the laws in Dublin at the time forbid divorce, leaving Cosmo’s parents trapped in a negative marriage. Mental illness was regarded quite differently as well; Raphina states that her mother is constantly in and out of mental hospitals due to “manic depression”, now referred to as bipolar disorder. This situation demonstrates a stark contrast from those who suffer from bipolar disorder today, as modern healthcare has made bipolar disorder a much more treatable and manageable illness than it once was.
The music that inspires Cosmo is another telling aspect of culture in this film. Cosmo becomes enchanted with English bands The Cure and Duran Duran, and with Philadelphia-based band Hall & Oates. The young Irish characters of Sing Street are largely influenced by England and America. Their infatuation with these countries is heard in Cosmo’s announcement that he has always wanted to attend an American high-school, and it is seen in Raphina’s dreams of leaving for England.
Pop music and fashion were very highly together at the time, leading Cosmo to wear makeup and hair dye to school in an attempt to emulate his musical idols. However, gender norms were considerably less fluid in 1985 than they are in 2016, and we see this in the hostility that Cosmo is met with when he sports his new style at his all boys’ school.
Although Cosmo certainly challenges gender norms, at least aesthetically, as a character, it is debatable whether or not the same can be said for the story as a whole. Raphina and her life in the orphanage seem reminiscent of a princess locked away in a tower, waiting to be saved by Prince Charming, or in this case, by Cosmo. Both characters are struggling, but unlike Raphina, Cosmo rises above his challenge without the help of a significant other. Raphina, on the other hand, does not entirely draw upon her own strength until Cosmo rescues her from her situation. Cosmo dreams of singing in a band and takes it upon himself to achieve just that. In contrast, Raphina’s dream doesn’t come to fruition until Cosmo makes it happen.
To make matters worse, Raphina has a boyfriend when Cosmo meets her, and this boyfriend promises to help her reach her dreams. At the story’s climax though, Raphina learns that her boyfriend was never really interested in helping her, and they break up. Upon losing him, she speaks as if her situation is hopeless without his help. When she eventually finds hope again, it is not from directly within. Rather, it is with Cosmo, as if her life can only have hope in it when she has a romantic partner to bring her that hope.
Even the dreams and goals of the characters in the first place seem to greatly differ based on gender. Cosmo and his male friends strive to improve their lives and to impress girls by making high quality music. Meanwhile, Raphina strives for these same things by trying to become a model. In other words, while the boys in the film base their worth on talent, the lone girl who appears places her worth in her looks.
This contrast is illustrated when Cosmo’s band creates their first music video, in which Raphina is featured as a model. In all fairness though, this scene also proves that Raphina’s character isn’t completely without the ability to take charge. When Raphina arrives on set, Cosmo and his bandmates are still struggling to figure out their look. Raphina comes to their rescue, fixing their costumes and makeup and transforming them from looking clownish to cohesively stylish. As Raphina directs the band, we see that she is not necessarily an underdeveloped character, but rather she is more likely a multifaceted character stuck within the confines of an outdated storyline.
While this dichotomy does get in the way, to an extent, of Raphina’s believability as a character, most of Carney’s other supporting characters in this film seem quite real, as do their conversations. The interactions between Cosmo and his friends do well in capturing the spontaneity of youth, and its creative and adventurous spirit. When Cosmo takes it upon himself to start a band, he doesn’t know how to play any instruments and he has no songwriting experience. His bandmates aren’t very far ahead of him, and their manager is a school friend of theirs who appears to be about fourteen. The friends remain confident, positive, and supportive of one another, and their determined patience eventually takes them to the top. Although a fictional band, the growth of the band can be interpreted as an accurate representation of the power of childlike hope.
Cosmo’s older brother, Brendan, is a bit of a different story. Already into his mid-twenties, he wonderfully represents somebody trying to hide his sense of failure behind humor and an attitude of nonchalance. He represents regret and broken dreams, but this too changes gradually morphs. A role model to Cosmo, Cosmo ultimately ends up inspiring him to realize that his dreams are still more alive than he thought.
Carney didn’t fall short as a director either when supporting his inspiring storyline. Sing Street is filled with original music, injecting the film with its own brand of romanticism and cheer. The visuals match the setting perfectly with a plethora of classically Irish and green scenic backdrops, and the story move along efficiently. Every scene has a purpose, as the film spares viewers from pointlessly time-killing scenes. The costumes that are meant to look inspired by The Cure do a great, and comical, job of looking just how they should, while the music that is meant to sound inspired by Hall & Oats sounds just as it should.
Carney was thoughtful about the casting in addition to the writing and directing, and it shows. He intentionally cast unknown actors, allowing viewers to easily immerse themselves in the storyline without preconceived notions about the actors to affect how the characters are perceived. The actors seem to disappear inside of the characters, and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo certainly does not fall short as a singer, guitarist, and charismatic frontman either.
Sing Street is not a perfect film, but it does come close. Carney’s newest film is a dynamic film, engrossing viewers with everything from the dialogue to the picturesque scenery. Touching upon sadness, happiness, and everything in between, Sing Street absolutely brings something new to the table of modern film. With all the makings of a future cult classic, Sing Street should not be missed.