The Magic of the Movie Musical

No, this post is not about La La Land.

Instead, I bring your attention to Sing Street, the third movie-musical directed by John Carney. Following Once and Begin Again, Sing Street has many of the same elements that made the first two films successful, but it’s most noticeable departure is it’s heavy play into nostalgia.

The film tells the story of Cosmo, a 15 year old boy in Dublin who changes school and starts a band to impress a girl. Set in the 1980s, Sing Street’s strength lies in its soundtrack. Throughout the film, we watch as Cosmo is exposed to and becomes inspired by bands such as Duran Duran, The Cure, and Hall & Oates. As the film evolves, the music played by Cosmo’s band (named Sing Street after their school, Synge Street) evolves as it is directly influenced by the music his older brother shares with him. With the help of often-exaggerated costumes, it is clear that the boys are trying to find their voice and their style in an ever-changing musical climate.

The original score is supplemented by hits from the eighties that invite older audiences to reminisce and younger viewers to connect the dots between today’s music and that of decades past. This became clear during my three viewings of the film: once with my host mother in France, a second time with a group of friends, and a third with my family. The varied reaction of my friends, to that of my host mother and family allowed me to see how the film and its soundtrack related to different audience groups. While my friends and I viewed it as a fun reference to the eighties, my host mom immediately recognized the emotional and deeply personal elements that influenced the characters through the music they listened to and performed.

In stark contrast to this year’s musical hit, La La Land, the music in Sing Street is intertwined with the plot in a fashion that doesn’t require the characters to randomly burst into highly choreographed, synchronized song. It becomes a raw form of expression for the characters and it allows the characters to relate to the audience in the way that a flashy opening number can’t quite do. We still get to see the songs performed but as is true in Begin Again, we also get to see the process in their creation (at least in the movie’s fictional context). Because most, if not all, of the songs are written about the object of Cosmo’s affection, Raphina, Carney smartly allows for the audience to draw connections between the events that unfold and they lyrics that are written about them. In an especially intimate moment we see Cosmo compose a song with his bandmate Eamon on a hill on the outskirts of Dublin, their hometown. As Cosmo explains the meaning of his lyrics, Eamon convinces him to run away with Raphina and put his words to action.

While the obvious favorite song of the movie is “Drive It Like You Stole It”, a catchy anthem to jump around to in your bedroom, the song that results from this scene, “To Find You” has become the song I return to again and again. With plenty of songs that reflect the pop sound of the eighties, songs like “To Find You” and “Up” stand out in the soundtrack. Still, the catchier songs are just as worthy of a listen because they reflect the personal issues Cosmo is dealing with in his family, school, and Dublin. “Brown Shoes” for example is accompanied by a well-orchestrated scene in which the student body triumphantly rebels against their headmaster. These songs are likely to draw audiences in for a second viewing, but it’s the more intimate compositions that will hopefully bring them back for a third.