Review by C.J. Bunce
That Thing You Do! collides with Orange County and Derry Girls in the 2016 coming-of-age movie Sing Street, which even the characters acknowledge to be a bit of an obvious, throwaway title (it’s derived from the actual Synge Street school). It’s not Glee or Fame–Sing Street is the rare coming-of-age movie that ticks all the boxes, and it features some promising actors who springboarded into some of our favorite series and movies in the interim seven years. You have a chance now to see it, but it’s leaving Netflix January 31, so add it to your queue before it’s gone.
Sing Street follows a teenager in 1980s Dublin who distracts himself from a nation in chaos by creating a neighborhood rock band, inspired by a slightly older girl he meets when his parents switch him to a less-expensive school. It features stars of The Peripheral, Star Wars, Bohemian Rhapsody, Orphan Black, Vikings, and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? and in a period of downer movies this is a nice movie to lift you up. In a year that had films like La La Land, Arrival, and Manchester by the Sea taking all the awards, the Oscars really blew it overlooking this indie film from Ireland.
Conor (Vikings’ own young King Alfred the Great actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is every kid in the 1980s, whether in Ireland or in the States. MTV is playing new music and Conor dreams of being in rock videos. Just as his parents (Orphan Black’s Maria Doyle Kennedy and Bohemian Rhapsody’s Aidan Gillen) are planning to split up because they can’t afford their family of five, Conor makes a good-hearted attempt to impress a slightly older girl named Raphina (Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? and Bohemian Rhapsody’s Lucy Boynton), who says she’s a model. Quick on his feet, he asks her to be in his band’s video (he doesn’t really have a band) so when she accepts he must get it together. Where another movie would have seen Conor in a half-hearted attempt to win the girl by throwing together any band, this instead becomes Orange County, digging into what makes the story’s hero tick, and in turn what makes Raphina and his bandmates tick.
Writer-director John Carney has said the film was partially autobiographical, and his eye for 1980s details is spot on, a decade in Ireland before the rambunctious school girls setting of Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls. The story roughly tracks That Thing You Do!–the first act only–these are younger wannabe Duran Duran types in an Irish formative stage like that of The Beatles. It doesn’t matter that the actual actors didn’t write or perform the songs, which were created by Gary Clark (There’s Something About Mary, Charmed) based on lyric ideas supplied by Carney. The difficulty in any show that relies on songs, like Fame or School of Rock or That Thing You Do! is that the songs need to be reasonably good. These lyrics are better than good, especially the catchy “Drive It Like You Stole It,” which is brilliant and fits into the story perfectly. The kids’ performances aren’t perfect like in School of Rock, which makes it all the more believable.
Conor experiences the same thing as the odd kid out in any coming-of-age show–here he is bullied by a nasty kid named Barry (Dublin Murders, and Solo: A Star Wars Story’s Ian Kenny), yet Carney spins the bully around in this story in a smart way. Beginning with gawky rabbit collector Eamon (Overlord’s Mark McKenna), the audience will see something magical come together. Eamon’s mother’s situation allows him to have learned several instruments, and he always opens the door ready to write another song with Conor–it’s the kind of friendship and chemistry (think Stand By Me or The Goonies) that cinches a movie like this. This gives them a place to practice. With the only kid that befriends Conor at the new school as band manager, they find the only black kid around to be in the band “because it would make the band look cool”–a cringey bit that Carney faces head in in the story with some good humor. And a pair of kids that know bass guitar and drums round out the band–both are odd and quirky but hysterically funny even in their brief background roles.
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo steals the show, as his character should, but only when Lucy Boynton is lighting up the screen–the audience is supposed to understand why she inspires him to write so many great songs. For a group of teen actors, the chemistry is fantastic–the actors are never cocky, and sequences and montages that connect the story show kids as actors having a great time. You won’t for a second feel like they aren’t really making up these songs. Even Conor’s admitted influence by the prom dance scene in Back to the Future fits the era nicely. That wise, older adviser of so many movies falls to The Peripheral star Jack Reynor, who was already climbing the acting ladder after a role in Transformers: Age of Extinction, to be followed by Electric Dreams, Kin, and Midsommar. Older brother to Colin, Brendan is expert on everything–as much as a 20-something brother living at home can be an expert. His role is identical to that of Jack Black’s character in Orange County–without the drugs and Jack Black craziness. His mentoring to Conor is real and true. This is a brilliant look inside the urban neighborhoods, like Attack the Block, but with an innocent crowd of kids.
The ending is satisfying and yet somewhat ambiguous. Is it meant to be a fantasy rock video ending, or is this a reflection of the 1970 novel Bless the Beasts & Children? It’s probably like the rest of the movie–it can be whatever you want it to be. Viewers can always find themselves somewhere in a good coming-of-age movie. This is a great coming-of-age movie. It’s also a worthy entry in the rock’n’roll movie genre. The songs are good, the mock rock videos are good. Better than The Adam Project, Superbad, and Troop Zero, and not as good as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies, or Spider-Man: Homecoming, but up there with the coming-of-age “younger set” trope shows The Kid, Derry Girls, Let Me In, Super 8, and Shazam!, catch Sing Street now streaming on Netflix, but only through January 31, 2023. Don’t miss it.
Catch more of our discussions of coming-of-age movies here at borg.