“Sing Street,” a musical about a group of Irish teens launching a pop-rock band, plays at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. It will keep viewers tapping their toes and humming along to its lively music.
Director John Carney has already made two successful films about the music world, “Once” (2007), and “Begin Again” (2013), which was nominated for a music Oscar. This time he draws from his own youth to tell the story of 14-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh Peelo). The year is 1985, and Conor crash-lands in the tough environment of a Dublin Catholic high school after his financially hurting parents pull him out of private school. He faces bullying by fellow students and the new school’s head, Father Baxter (Don Wycherley). This Christian brother with pedophiliac tendencies orders Conor to walk around in socks because his shoes aren’t regulation black, then practically waterboards him in a later scene.
Soon, Conor sets eyes on Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a drop-dead beauty with attitude and modeling aspirations. Instantly smitten, Conor catches Raphina’s attention by asking her to appear in a music video with a garage band that doesn’t exist yet. This is a boy with gumption. He pulls together the band from a batch of clueless classmates who have almost no musical experience. They include Eamon (Mark McKenna), who has a roomful of musical instruments, and pint-size, ginger-haired Darren (Ben Carolan), who appoints himself manager. In an abortive turn toward political correctness, they add a black band mate, Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), who quickly disappears into the background. Raphina provides makeup and wardrobe advice for the clumsy, back-alley video, and Conor writes a catchy pop-rock tune. At home, he takes cover from his parents’ bickering with his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), a college dropout who dispenses musical wisdom drawn from the likes of Duran Duran and the Cure.
The story is not a novel one, but the transformation of these fresh-faced innocents into young men with big dreams is a wonder to watch. Before long — and maybe too quickly — Conor makes genuine pop-rock music with his band mates, and the songs he writes could pass for genuine Eighties tunes. Refusing to let the school bully intimidate him, or nasty Father Baxter repress his evolving coolness, Conor paints his shoes black and shows up at school with makeup and blonde streaks in his hair. As he and his pals try new versions of themselves, hairstyles and wardrobes change regularly.
Named after their high school with a slight orthographic change, the Sing Street band plays its first real gig at the school prom. The scene temporarily morphs into a “Back to the Future” dream sequence of an American-style rock-’n’-roll party. Director Carney gets away with this device because of his knack for mixing fantasy with old-fashioned kitchen-sink realism. Nothing stands in the way of Conor’s march toward musical success, even though there are plenty of hard knocks along the way. In the movie’s final scene, Carney melds the two styles perfectly.