Carney's Dublin is troubled and hardscrabble, but this is an aspirational musical from a born crowd-pleaser, so don't expect an unflinching look at poverty — and don't expect the characters to ever stop looking as if they're trying to prove it's 1985, with their frosted tips and denim pantsuits. (One heartfelt exchange between crushed-out kids is underscored to a gentle
But Sing Street pleases, all right, and even occasionally hits on truth: At first Conor's band apes Duran Duran, whom he's seen on Top of the Pops. Then his stoner older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) hips him to more daring fare, and soon Conor — already chided by classmates for being a bit posh — shows up at school in full Cure regalia, once even smearing on a faceful of makeup. That doesn't go well for him, but Carney and Walsh-Peelo emphasize the character's strength rather than his occasional victimization. He's always defiant in the face of attacks on whichever self he's currently trying on.
Wittily, the songs Conor writes for his band all echo hits of the era that we've seen him discover: “In Between Days,” “Maneater,” even “Axel F.” Sing Street tracks Conor and his somewhat underdeveloped mates over a school year, and the film's richest pleasure, even more than its excellent new pop songs, is watching the young men grown into themselves — even if, in getting there, they have to imitate. Carney is smart about how much creative kids draw on the cultural material around them as they will themselves into being. “I'm a futurist — no nostalgia!” Conor declares, not realizing how much the past informs his Soft Cell present and also gently lampooning the film's soundtrack of Gen-X oldies.
Carney's also smart about musical numbers. Sure, the songs (written by Gary Clark and Carney) sound too confident, too fully composed, to come from 16-year-olds. But their borrowings are bold, sometimes comic, and the lyrics are perfect youthful notebook scribblings: “She's standing on the corner/like an angel in disguise” kicks off a priceless New Romantic pastiche titled “The Riddle of the Model.” Carney shows us the songs as works in progress, and — as in Once and Begin Again — they always articulate some longing of the characters. He also finds an excuse to give us slicker sounds and production numbers than the milieu can account for — he's after what these dreamers imagine their music sounds like, which excuses a blowout 1950s prom-dance fantasy inspired by Conor's love of Back to the Future.
That dreaming sets Conor at odds with the punkish
There's a love story, of course. Conor falls for Lucy Boynton's
Sing Street's everyday Dubliners may too often look as if they're wearing self-conscious 1985 costumes, but the in-story costumes actually selected by the band members are a joy: Conor in cheap-ass Byronic foppery; guitarist Eamon (Mark McKenna) in a velour tux; the pipsqueak bass player in a cowboy hat and cow-print PJs.