A few nights ago, during dinner, I DJed an impromptu YouTube playlist of ‘80s music. Why? Someone mentioned St. Elmo’s Fire (the weather phenomenon, not the classic Brat Pack film). That’s all it took. That was enough to get the sentimentality flowing. For the next hour, it was Patrick Swayze, Simple Minds, and, yes, John Parr (from the aforementioned St. Elmo’s Fire). My kids tolerated it. My wife Janna and I reveled in it.
I don’t know that music is embedded in the teenage experience for all of us. I don’t know if we all had soundtracks for our formative years. I do know that I did. I can track my emotional journey album by album, artist by artist. And when I saw the trailer for the new film Sing Street, I felt it calling me, pulling at the breadth of that emotional memory.
Written and directed by John Carney (Once, Begin Again), Sing Street takes the heart of John Hughes, the bitter romance of Once, the musical high of The Commitments, and a fiery, determined optimism, and synthesizes all of them into something remarkable.
It’s 1985 in Dublin. Duran Duran is burning up Top of the Pops.John Barber
Fifteen-year-old Conor Lalor is a futurist. At least that’s what he tells people when they ask what kind of music he likes. All he really knows is that the present and the past don’t have anything for him. It’s 1985 in Dublin. Duran Duran is burning up Top of the Pops. Conor is in a new school, a buttoned-down parochial institution that chastises him for violating the strict “black shoes only” policy, while allowing all manner of bullying and cruelty. His parents are constantly at each other’s throats, and the sound of their arguing pushes through the walls of the Lalor house.
Conor, his brother, and his sister do their best to drown it out with the records of Joe Jackson, The Cure, and Hall and Oates, and the music is a balm for them. Things change when Conor, at his lowest, meets the beautiful Raphina, who dates older boys and wants to be a model in England. She’s the archetypal “I’ll do anything to be near her, even just for a few minutes” girl. He responds the way any of us would: he asks her to star in a music video for his band.
Unfortunately, Conor doesn’t have a band, and he doesn’t know how to play an instrument very well or how to write songs. But after he teams up with a few of the other marginalized students at his school, the rough and tumble rock band Sing Street starts to take shape. As the band writes songs, records them, and makes music videos together, a new community is born. As they work to figure out who they are, the begin to find themselves.
I sat next to my 16-year-old son for Sing Street, and two things happened to me. First, I was instantly transported back to my teenage years — not too far removed, musically speaking, from Conor’s. His deliverance came from New Wave. Mine came from R.E.M. and then, a few years later, grunge. But the notes are all the same, aren’t they? I remembered every drop of angst, every spark of teenage love, every bit of longing.
The second thing that happened to me was that I began to look at my son and wonder. “Is he seeing himself here? Are these ‘universal’ experiences true for him, too?” There came a commingling of lives. I was 16 again, and he was 16 now. Part of being a teenager is that you don’t tell your dad about things like this, so I was left to guess. The way that he gushed about the movie afterward leads me to believe that he saw himself on that screen.
There’s a moment in the movie, about halfway through, when everything is right. Conor and Raphina are in a moment of idyllic beauty, and it seems like it should end right there. If the movie stopped at that point, we would have left happy. And while a lesser, more cynical movie would have thrown the real world at them and dashed their optimism, Sing Street chooses a different path. Yes, the real world intrudes. But instead of battering them (and us) with the bitterness of reality, the intrusion of the real world gives them the chance to see that the future is so much bigger than that one fleeting moment.
Sing Street does have a point to make about the change that community brings when you’re floating in liminal space. Conor finds his people when he starts the band, and when his parents are falling apart, he and his siblings form a tribe of their own. It also has something to say about how art can affect political change. In the midst of a corrupt regime at the school, Sing Street fights back. But, at its heart, Sing Street is a movie about the innocence of teenage romance, and how relationships can drive you toward something wonderful or away from something terrible. The final scene of the film underscores just that – the optimism of a relationship that drives our heroes toward something new, toward the future. It’s unusual in our postmodern world to find a film that so proudly wears its optimism on its sleeve, but Sing Street does so unapologetically.
Can you dig back in your mind, in your imagination, to how it felt when you were 16 and in love, to how you knew that if everything fell just so, to how all would be wonderful? You’d get the girl. You’d get to make out with the girl. The future wasn’t a plan; it was a promise. If you can find that feeling again, just for a moment, you’ll get a glimpse of what Sing Street does. If you can’t remember, go see Sing Street, because it’ll help you find that feeling again.
John Barber is a music lover, film nut, husband, and father. Last year he set out to watch 365 films in one year, and he lived to tell about it. That means he's seen more bad movies than we even want to think about.