University College Dublin, Ireland
The death of David Bowie weighed heavily over 2016. It was a year of many “celebrity” deaths that brought something of the taste of mortality to a generation looking back to the pre-millennial years as their living past in a world that increasingly knows those days only as history. A prevailing theme in the obituaries and editorials that surfaced after Bowie’s death was his chameleon quality – his capacity for change and his determination to never remain fixed in one persona or identity no matter how beloved. Somehow through Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, and The Man Who Fell to Earth to the Tin Machine, the Earthling and the Blackstar, the only consistency was “David Bowie”, who, in the end, as David Jones’ first creation, seemed as clear and distinct a personality as any persona he had played with over time.
A key scene in John Carney’s Sing Street involves the direct evocation of Bowie when 15 year old schoolboy Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) has arrived at his Christian Brothers’ School in Dublin’s inner city wearing make-up. He is confronted by the domineering Brother Baxter (Don Wycherly), who is unimpressed by Conor’s argument that men in the 18th century wore make-up and that he needs to look like this to give his newly-formed band a visual identity (grounded in new romantic exoticism at this point). Brother Baxter somewhat ambiguously tells him he’s pretty enough without make up and invites him to use his private bathroom to wash his face. When Conor refuses politely and opts to return to class, Baxter chases him down the corridor, drags him into the school toilets and violently plunges the boy’s face into the sink to wash him. “No more Ziggy Stardust”, says Baxter with a vehemence that may be as much closeted desire as flat out institutionalised bullying.
Sing Street derives much of its humour and its symbolism from the image of change and the changes in image undergone by its teenaged protagonists as they attempt to become musicians. This is done at least initially in order for Conor to impress Rafina (Lucy Boynton) a 16 year old girl who lives across the road from the school and dreams of being a model and going to London. Each time we see her, she looks different, first a Joan Jett/girl rocker in denim, then Madonna with jewelry crosses and a bow in her hair, then new wave Chinoiserie, then later a Lea Thompson 1950s fantasy inspired by the 1985 retro-conscious odedipal text extraordinaire Back to the Future, eventually even showing her bare face as a bruised teenage girl with shattered dreams. Conor tells Rafina he is in a band just to get her phone number, then has to start one, and though he begins by imitating others, specifically Duran Duran, he is quickly directed to taking the risk of having an original voice, a voice that Rafina hears and begins to respond to. As Conor and his classmates write more and more songs and he learns more about music from his elder brother, the guru-like pothead Brendan (Jack Reynor), Conor arrives at the school sporting not only make up, but later a Curehead look, then a new romantic fringe, then a Hall & Oates mullet. Each song is different, each mood is different, each experience of writing and performing in their original voice transforms the band, chameleon-like, in a search for a self that was there all along. Like Bowie, it is not the individual changes that matter, because time can change them, but they can’t trace time.
As Rafina and Conor constantly change their look, their feelings for one another grow stronger, and yet there are hidden truths behind both that will, eventually come to the surface. As Rafina is finally brought to earth with the realisation that her adult boyfriend’s promises to take her to London were just a line, Conor’s initial shock at her quick abandonment of hope to a life “working in McDonalds and hanging out with a fifteen year old schoolboy” enables him to turn his back on her resignation and proceed with his own dreams, now so near realisation, and maybe bring her with him out of the past and into the future.
Time is also a key motif in the film in broader cultural terms, the film being set in the 1980s (1985, to be exact) during the recessionary era from which Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments emerged to become Alan Parker’s film in 1991. 2016 was also, it so happens, the 25th anniversary of that film, which was being celebrated at the time as a beloved nostalgic object constituting a type of cinematic authenticity that had passed during the years of the Celtic Tiger. Parker’s film was, like Carney’s, infused with a combination of nostalgia and contemporary perspective. A film built around 1960s soul music in the consciously incongruous setting of late eighties/early 90s Dublin “urban decay”, the film served a simultaneously affirmational and critical function as a portrayal of Irish cultural identity in 1991, a mixture of hope and despair, imagining and creation even in the face of the possibility of failure (measured on what terms, the film asked?).
Sing Street also invokes the spectre of failure, but figures it in terms of the risks of facing the future. Rock and roll is risk, we are told – you run the risk of being ridiculed for being yourself – and so is love: stepping out of the comfort zone and into the possibilities of self-creation in the face of the crushing weight of conformity, obedience, and tradition that Irish culture is seen to feed upon in a most cannibalistic and repressive way. The issue of legacy hangs heavily over the film, as Conor and his siblings watch the disintegration of their parents’ marriage (in a nod to the cinematic past that does not deny the actor her abilities, the casting of Maria Doyle Kennedy from The Commitments, in the role of Conor’s mother cannot be entirely without meaning). The older brother, Brendan, is 21, but acknowledges his own disappointments. He is eloquent, educated, and knowledgable, but housebound in drug-addled hopelessness – doling out advice to his younger brother, whom he loves, but feeling lost in himself. He shares his parents’ story with Conor from a place of despair of his own – a story of two Irish teenagers who had to get married because they wanted to have sex, but didn’t love each other and then found themselves in a rented flat with a screaming baby (him). Several scenes in the film repeat the motif of the Lalor children drowning out the sounds of their parents’ bitter battle by listening to music, sometimes dancing, sometimes desperate, sometimes, as in the film’s opening scene, as an inspiration to self-expression. Here Conor sits along strumming his guitar, using the words his parents hurl at each other in anger as lyrics for an imaginary song, literally repeating them. By the end of the film he has learned to absorb the hurts that surround him and to reject the fatalism of Irish destiny. You do not have to do as your parents do, the film tells us, and even if you make missteps, or change your mind about how you go forward, the aim should be the hopeful future, not wallowing in the traumatic past.
At the climactic disco, he sings a scabrous song inspired by Brother Baxter: “See your curtain’s falling/so take your bow. You’re stuck in the past/I’m writing the future.” Conor has come to own his rebellion and to forge his identity, not necessarily by simple reactionary defiance, but by acts of creation and recreation that reshape the patterns and the moulds that have to date given him his shape. “Sometimes I pull myself apart. I shift my shape the way I change my colours,” he sings, “Guess I’m a human work of art/a never-ending video, oh, oh, oh”. Carney constantly confronts us with the image of the image and image culture through the film, and revels in the fascination with creation and affectation that comes with the culture of early 1980s music video and the adolescent infatuation with it. It also enjoys presenting the sense of foolish danger that comes with this kind of cosplay defiance. The scene where the band assembles for the first time to shoot “The Riddle of the Model” is a marvellously casual gathering of signifiers and signified. The “alley behind Quinnsworth” comes complete with broken plaster and a painted swastika, but the band sport a range of costumes from a child’s cowboy outfit and vampire teeth to velvet suits and make-up. The style themselves “futurist” – no nostalgia – “not looking backward, just forward” away from where they are or where their parents were to where they might be.
But it is generous with its disappointment. Brendan and Conor speculate about what their mother must be feeling as she sits soaking in the sun for a few minutes, her marriage falling apart, her home about to be sold. When Conor opts to leave, he whispers “I love you, Mum” in the dark, and even Dad (Aiden Gillen) is shown in sympathetic compositions denoting pitiable lonliness, juxtaposed with Conor’s own musings that must, dramatically, result in change. The film even has time to redeem the school bully, Barry Bray (Ian Kenny), whose homophobic provocations are denied, confronted, and rejected, and he is told by the “manager”, classmate Darren (Ben Carolan), that ultimately everyone in Sing Street (the school) is the same (subject to the same institutional disregard that the obedience-based education system offered), and that there’s more of a chance for him as the band’s roadie than joining his addict parents in squalor and violence.
The film is even able to be comparatively easy on white Ireland’s self-definition in 2016 through a 1985 filter when it comes to racial profiling. The Commitments had famously gone straight for the racial jugular with a deft ideological side-step. The famous speech by Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) to the effect that the Irish were the blacks of Europe and Dubliners the blacks of Ireland and North side Dubliners the blacks of Dublin gave textual credence to the co-opting of soul music by an all-white line up of young musicians. Though academic debate about this side step would rage in other contexts, and the cultural conflation of “white” and “Irish” remains a focus for scholarly studies and a trope in itself, Carney gives the subject an airing as another identity gag. The one African-Irish student in Sing Street, Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) is assumed to be musical because of his race, and when the fledgling band go to his home to visit him, Darren asks his mother (Vera Nwabuwe), who answers the door, if this is where the coloured fella lives. The exasperated woman says “no: four doors down”, and the boys turn to leave, at which point she chides them for their stupidity. Taking the joke to the next logically masochistic ideological dressing-down, when Darren outlines the plans for the band to Ngig, he speaks slowly with exaggerated hand gestures as if the boy might not understand him, to which Nigig responds in a Dublin-African accent “What the hell is wrong with him?”. Later on, Nigig also adopts a touch of image-cultural commentary when he dresses in whiteface during the band’s Cure/Goth phase.
All of this would be rather didactic without the naturalistic acting from the young cast, who also perform the original songs, and Carney’s careful filming of their performances to establish the sense of creativity and energy that comes with young people something out for themselves. In one particularly showy but clever 360 degree camera move, he follows Conor on guitar and the rabbit-obsessed Eamon (Mark McKenna) on piano as they put music to the words of their second song to sound. The camera tracks around the front room of Eamon’s home, connoting the passing of time in space with changes in light and the sudden appearance of the other band members working the song fully into life, then back to Conor and Eamon in different clothes. It’s a Hitchcock-level camera movement with a real “did he or didn’t he” quality to it, but what it captures is that energy of the song moving forward from first steps to full performance that has even Eamon’s mother (Marcella Plunkett, sporting a denim pants suit, huge glasses, and an 80s perm when we first meet her) dancing. Like The Commitments and Once (Carney’s previous musical hit, from 2007), this Irish musical does not feature the kind of spontaneous bursting into song that characterises the classic Hollywood variety, but rather locates the expression of emotion through music and lyrics in the textual performance of song by the actors and participants as musicians. The songs are full of meaning, both in their humourous derivativeness and in the lyrics spoken, and again Carney’s use of the image of the image is canny, and layered, and funny, but they are also framed by narrative performance and performativity: at once in and of the diegetic space.
As the film ends though, a song is performed without visible source that may represent the “stream of consciousness” lyrics Brendan has written for his younger brother and handed him on legal paper as the young man prepares to leave for England on their grandfather’s boat, Rafina alongside him. The journey is dangerous, possibly suicidal, arguably symbolic, but certainly metaphorically necessary. “You’re never gonna know if you don’t find out. You’re never gonna grow if you don’t grow now” we are told in song, and we watch in horror and hope as the weather turns and Conor and Rafina are buffeted by wind and rain as they challenge the Irish sea in the wake of a Ferry. But the image of Conor’s rain-swept face with which the film ends is not of suicidal nihilism, but exhilarated hope. “You’ll probably die” says Brendan, “But go on, anyway.” Indeed. The film is dedicated to brothers everywhere, and there is no denying that it is heartfelt, be it a fantasy, an imagining, or a worn identity: an Irish film musical full of hope and uplift from cruelty, repression, and fixedness.