Someday we’ll find it,

The rainbow connection —

The lovers, the dreamers, and me.

“The Rainbow Connection,” The Muppet Movie

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[This review is dedicated to Laure Hittle, one of the Looking Closer Specialists,
whose contributions to keep this website alive made this review possible.
Want to become one of the Specialists and join our Facebook group? Here’s how.]

When you were a teenager, what was it about your body that embarrassed you the most?

I’d have a hard time making a short list of possible answers for myself. In high school, I had a variety of nicknames mocking my nose, my bowl-shaped haircuts, my crooked teeth, and the strange curve of my spine. But worst of all — and this continues today — my neck and face would blotch blood red when my adrenalin spiked. Today, it’s most noticeable when I get up in front of a class for a lecture. But when I was a kid, it spiked ever higher the closer I got to a girl. Nothing I could do about it.

© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.
© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

From the early scenes of John Carney’s Sing Street, I felt a strange kinship with Conor, the young and artistic Dublin teen played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. I noticed a surprising physical resemblance between him at age 17 and myself at that age. But then it happened — he bravely approached a girl right out his dreams (or at least out of a Duran Duran music video), and lo… his neck and cheeks flushed crimson. I burst out with a laugh of recognition — the kind you laugh when you feel like crying.

Conor — even though he’s skinny and awkward and obviously poor, even though he’s moving through a dangerous and bully-dominated boarding school environment — puts on a show of confidence, as I used to do. He is audacious, as I used to be.

He marches right up to Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a beauty who looks a couple of years older than him, and who is probably the most worshipped girl in his neighborhood. And he makes her an offer. Will she be the star in his band’s next music video? Never mind that he doesn’t have a band. Or a song. Or a video.

Which is something I would have done. Even though I was the kind of guy girls liked to have “as a friend,” not as a boyfriend, I was crazy enough to save up to secretly purchase a diamond — a diamond! — for a girl I liked, without any comprehension of how insane it was, or how much damage it would do to my reputation. I was out of my mind when I was in love, but that’s the point — when you’re “caught up” like that, you learn just how brave you can be. You may make a fool of yourself, but you may also discover what you’re capable of.

I was a lot like Conor. I hope that, in some ways, I still am.

Add to this that the film is set in 1985, just a couple of years before I was Conor’s age. So, even though it is set in Dublin, Sing Street‘s soundtrack seems to have been composed by someone with a direct line to my nostalgia circuits.

© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.
© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

So how can I help but root for this guy, as he tries to give shape to his dreams while suffering the storms of his own adolescence and his family’s poverty?

Carney’s film Once balanced a sort of “man on the street” realism with lush and romantic musical flourishes, and it did so with such heart, and with such appealing cast members, that viewers — including me — could not resist. Sing Street is even more blatantly conventional in its underdog-chases-the-girl-of-his-dreams cliches. It’s like Say Anything meets Billy Elliott meets The Commitments — in the best possible way.

A great deal of Sing Street‘s fun is in the way it celebrates the sounds and the style of the ’80s. The audience laughs in recognition as Conor and Company put on looks inspired by overcoated, lipsticked, and eyeliner-smudged pop idols like Simon Le Bon and Robert Smith. (Watching these guys nervously consent to makeovers, I couldn’t help but remember my own sense of panic as I emerged from my own freshman dorm room wearing makeup for a band photo shoot.)

© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.
© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

And what this film does best is what Once did best: Carney, who was once in a great band called The Frames, captures the magic of songs coming together through improvisation, cooperation, and imagination. Anyone who’s been in a band will recognize the sort of fever that sweeps through this group of rookie rock stars as their rhythms and riffs starts connecting and catching fire.

And, unlike so many other birth-of-a-band movies, Sing Street‘s songs are really good. They wear their ’80s influences on their sleeves (as they should, since it’s a movie about learning by imitation), and they get their Brit pop hooks in.

© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.
© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

One thing Conor has that I never had is an older brother: Brendan (Jack Reynor) is the film’s secret weapon, its truly tragic figure. Brendan believes that he’s already — by being wasted — all of his chances as an artist and a visionary. So he appoints himself as Conor’s advisor, living vicariously through the kid’s crazy drive, determination, and success.

It would be easy to say that Sing Street is as cliche-driven as most formulaic Top 40 pop songs. But what’s remarkable is just how affectionately and winsomely it embraces those conventions, never pretending that they come as a surprise, and delivering them with personality and particularity. These characters are persuasively real. In the predictable troubles of Conor’s family life, there is a gracious tone of compassion and genuine sadness. In the unlikely love story, there’s remarkable sweetness and tenderness; as in Moonrise Kingdom, this is a real romance, not a rush to lose virginity. And so, when the joys come, they’ve been earned.

Joy is the film’s reason for being, and joy wins the day.

© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.
© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

The film’s only real weakness its incongruously one-dimensional villain. The Catholic school headmaster is a cruel cartoon, representing the film’s wholesale dismissal of religious faith — even as it paints rock and roll as the way of salvation. He’s a convenient target at the film’s finale, giving the heroes opportunity to shame their enemy and gloat. It’s a note of cheap crowdpleasing that sound dissonant in the context of so much heart.

Nevertheless, I found myself moved by the film’s fairy tale finale. Are these kids crazy to cast off family, education, and tradition, and launch into the wild blue yonder in pursuit of their dreams? Yes, actually. I suspect it will not go well for them in the long run.

But as today’s dreamers face increasingly disheartening obstacles, as artists around the world have become so exploited that they cannot make a decent living, it is rather exhilarating to feel, if only for a few moments, that they’re being brave by pursuing their dreams. Maybe it’ll make a life-changing impression on some dreamers in the audience.

I think it made an impression on me.

I saw my younger self there on the screen, willing to give everything for the love of my art, for the call of the dream. And I missed that awkward, vision-driven kid very much. I left the theater singing. And a couple of weeks later, I wrote my resignation letter — the adrenaline pumping redness into my face — and determined to leave the job that was killing my dreams. I set out, against all odds, to try doing what I love. Like a fool. Like a dreamer.

That’s the power of a movie like this one. It’ll make you “drive it like you stole it.”

Pray for the Conors and the Raphinas of the world… the lovers, the dreamers, and me.

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