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Non-Review Review: Sing Street

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Sing Street is a joyous musical coming of age story.

As with Once and Begin Again, director John Carney demonstrates an innate (and romantic) appreciation for the role of music in interpersonal interactions. As in both Once and Begin Again, Carney employs music as an emotional shorthand; both in how the characters relate to one another and how the audience relates to the film. As with his two prior films, Carney treats music as a language of love and attraction, offering his characters the chance to communicate ideas or feeling that can only be hinted at through conversation, no matter how intimate.

However, Sing Street more firmly ties its musical elements to a sense of memory or nostalgia, with a soundtrack that evokes the film’s secondary school setting as effectively as costumes or set dressings. Sing Street is an ode to the joys and adventures of youth, set to a catchy synthesiser beat.

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This use of music as the gateway to memory is not particularly novel in Carney’s work. After all, both Once and Begin Again seem to treat their music elements as an attempt to mark a particular moment for posterity, to bottle the emotion of a particular moment so that it might be preserved for the characters (and the audience) long after the moment itself has passed. (In this respect, it is telling that Once has been reconceived as a stage musical; a reimagining and rewriting of a musical cultural memory.)

Science suggest that smell is the sense most firmly tied to memory, but Sing Street makes a compelling case for hearing. Carney is a great director who works well with actors, but he has a phenomenal understanding of music as an emotional tool. Sing Street does not evoke Ireland in the eighties by reference to Charles Haughey or economic recession, it conveys the moment through grainy replays of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet videos. Sing Street is not so much about capturing the eighties how they were; it is about capturing them as we remember them.

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(As with The Guard, Sing Street offers a wry suggestion about just how much of Irish culture and identity is informed by outside influences. The Guard cynically played with the idea of setting an American action movie in an Irish context, while Sing Street is far more affectionate in its celebration of how Irish cultural memory appropriates and incorporates strong foreign influences. Indeed, in a nice bit of imported meta-nostalgia, one set-piece explicitly invokes the American fifties through the prom climax of Back to the Future.)

It helps that Carney has assembled a great cast to bring his story to life. His young actors all handle themselves very well, but that is particularly true of his two teenage romantic leads; Lucy Boynton and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo play well off one another, bringing an endearing vulnerability and sensitivity to their roles. Carney rounds out the cast with a collection of wonderful Irish performers, in particular Jack Reynor as the protagonist’s older brother, with Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy as his parents.

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John Carney’s script also deserves a great deal of credit for managing its tone so well. As much as Sing Street offer an idealistic and upbeat depiction of Irish adolescence in the eighties, the script doesn’t shy from the dangers and unpleasantness that bubbled beneath the surface. The script acknowledges the abuse and neglect that often simmered in the background, in a manner that never feels cynical or exploitative. As joyful as Sing Street might be, it is also quite candid. However, it never allows these traumas to define or limit its protagonists.

There are moments at which Sing Street does seem a little too saccharine, moments in which it seems like the romantic depiction of teenage years threatens to swallow the movie whole. While the score is normally quite charming (even weaving the riff Her Name is Rio into the ambient soundtrack), there are points at which it swells a little too heavily in triumph. As much as Carney understands the emotive power of music, there are moments when the film might have been better suited to turn the volume down slightly.

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Sing Street hits mostly triumphant notes, it just occasionally hits them a little bit too loudly. Then again, there is something slightly churlish in asking a movie with a soundtrack as catchy as Sing Street to turn its volume down.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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