1980s. Dublin. New Romantics.
If the prospect of those three words being combined into a film does not fill you with glee I’m not sure how well we’re going to get on or how well you’re going to get on with this film. If you haven’t jumped ship and are still reading – then this film may just be for you! From John Carney, the writer-director-producer of Once and Begin Again, comes another musical tale about love and friendship. But this time our main characters are teenagers and they are forming a band The Commitments-style. The result is one of the most rewarding, enjoyable and grin-inducing films of the year so far.
It’s 1985. Like all epic stories it started with money problems and a girl. Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is forced to leave his expensive fee-paying school and attend the local state school Synge Street CBS. The family has little money coming in as patriarch Robert (Aidan Gillen) is finding his architecture practice is not really required during a financial crisis. It’s at his new school, well on the school’s doorstep, that Connor first meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Raphina is an older lady, one year older, and is the most glamorous/gorgeous/extraordinary woman Cosmo has ever seen. New-found friend and wanna-be entrepreneur Darren (Ben Carolan) explains the school gossip that Raphina is a model who will soon be moving to England to make her fortune. Connor bravely introduces himself to Raphina and offers her a job that weekend to star in his band’s music video. After a bit of charming she agrees to take the job. Except Connor doesn’t actually have a band – yet. With audiophile elder brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) to guide him surely it’ll all be easy, won’t it..?
There are so many reasons to love this film – many of which I don’t want to discuss in too much detail or give away as it’s discovering them for yourself that only add to the brilliance. However I will briefly give the headlines of the reasons for my adoration. For favourite character I am torn between Brendan and bespeckled multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna). The soundtrack will undoubtedly be one of the best of the year – the classics are superbly chosen and the original songs (such Riddle of the Model) are wonderful tributes with some infectiously catchy riffs. The storyline is told with great empathy and sympathy. This is a film that truly cares about its characters. The music videos the band makes are both hilarious and nostalgia-inducing (even for those of us who were not alive in 1985!) I full enjoyed the references to The Cure, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet to name just three – I can only imagine the depth of the enjoyment for those who leaved and breathed this music scene. The friendship between the newly-formed band is heart-warming and believable thanks to some fantastic chemistry between them. The film also manages to cover lots of ‘big’ topics – mental health, adultery, abuse – sensitively and appropriately. There’s a great balance here between pathos and humour.
My main criticism would be the treatment of Raphina. Boynton does an excellent job with the material she is given but the presentation/treatment of her character is far too Maniac Pixie Dream Girl. For the most part we only learn about Raphina through what Connor (whom Raphina later renames Cosmo) sees and hears. She doesn’t transcend being his figure of worship and far too much screen time is dedicated to his male-gaze watching her. Whilst the dialogue of most of the characters is rooted in a degree of realism or believability Raphina’s craic is over-rehearsed. Arguably this could be a reflection of her personality as a character but for the most part her dialogue rarely lands as effectively like the other characters. Any film that focuses on a romantic crush, be that of a man or woman, must deal with the universality of the story arc as a duel-edged sword. Whilst it makes for an accessible storyline, as the majority of the world’s population would have had a romantic crush at some point or another, it means we then have to believe in the crush and that all the turmoil it brings our lead character is worth it. Is Raphina worth it?
Aside from my ponderings on potentially dubious representation, I truly loved Sing Street. So much so I think a rewatch in the new few weeks will be in order. It tickles the funny bone whilst tugging at the heart strings. It’s an old-fashioned story told with great warmth and will great skill. And, for New Romantics at heart like me, it’s chance to feel immersed in and nostalgic for a lifetime I never lived.