I can relate to the teenage punk wannabes of Sing Street more than I should probably admit. The film’s depiction of an all-boy Catholic high school as an oppressive hellhole shaped by a Kafkaesque adherence to The Rules & a constant, violent power play of toxic masculinity rang particularly true, though it’s an environment I experienced in mid-00s New Orleans, not mid-80s Dublin. So, what do you do in that creativity vacuum where the priests are worse than the bullies and your drab homelife only serves to feed your depressive teenage angst? You start a punk band with your fellow angsty friends, dummy. You shamelessly mine music & pop culture knowledge from people who actually know what they’re talking about (in this case a stoner older brother) & you start holding band practice in your friend’s garage. The only things that don’t ring true about Sing Street‘s central conceit for my own experience is that its high school punk band is actually pretty good (mine was a goofy mess) and that it was mostly formed to impress/woo a girl. That latter point is actually where the film loses it’s way, too, as it forgets to focus on what makes it special as an against-the-odds rock ‘n roll story in favor of a much less distinct sappy romance fantasy.
I don’t know if the titular teenage band of Sing Street would necessarily categorize their music as “punk”. They seem to prefer the term “futurist,” which is apparently a grey area between new wave & new romanticism that formed in punk’s mid-80s European ashes. This is a pop culture environment where Duran Duran’s music video for “Rio” is considered revolutionary art and teens form all over Ireland & rural England are flocking to London to become part of the scene. Sing Street doesn’t follow those kids, though. It instead tells the story of the less-wealthy punk wannabes who can’t afford to move to London & have to stay behind. The film’s early proceedings play like a less fantastical version of Moone Boy as our “futurist” rock heroes try to assert themselves as small town radicals, wearing makeup to a Catholic school & filming dirt cheap music videos for each new song in Dublin’s back alleys. The coming-of-age aspect of the film works quite well, especially in the way the central band is allowed to start shitty & gradually improve as they mimic each passing fad in the music industry. Unfortunately, a lot of this goodwill gives way to a story about “getting the girl,” a preposterously rose-tinted tour through heartfelt teenage romance that drags down a lot of the film’s good vibes & aesthetic specificity into mind-numbing tedium. Sing Street is a great exemplifier of the dreaded critical cliché “third act problems.” The film drops a lot of what makes it interesting to clear room for its will-they-won’t-they teenage romance (something that never lasts, no matter where you leave off by the end credits) and an extended concert sequence that drags the pace down to a crawl with its diminishing returns musical numbers.
I don’t want to sound too down on Sing Street as a whole, though, even if my own enthusiasm was greatly deflated by its concluding half hour of romantic doldrums. At the very least I enjoyed it more than I expected to, based on the fairly generic trailer. It’s a pleasant film more than a challenging or ambitious one, but it does recall some feel-good aspects of (better) recent works like We Are the Best & God Help the Girl. You could do much worse for a lazy afternoon’s entertainment than enjoying Sing Street for its catchy mid-80s pastiche soundtrack or its period specific visual cues, like its wardrobe’s overindulgence in denim & wire-frame glasses or its accurate lampooning of the era’s music video clichés. The film just loses a little steam when it stops cheering for the band to succeed & starts cheering for an obviously doomed romance instead, with little to no implication that it knows how improbable that couple’s chances really are. Once you start to realize that only one or two members of the six piece punk, uh, futurist band are going to be developed into any kind of full-blown characters, it’s difficult not to feel at least a little disappointed. This is a pretty good movie, but if it stuck to its original trajectory it could’ve been something truly great.