Sing Street

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At the dawn of the pop video era, Dublin teenager Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is riddled with typical teenage angst. A bully, Barry (Ian Kenny), has honed in on him at his new school, whilst at home the marriage of his parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) is sitting on a knife’s edge amidst constant bickering. His older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) possesses a peerless knowledge of popular music but rarely leaves the house, wallowing in self-pity and the agony of musical dreams that he refused to chase down.

Then Conor spots a mysterious girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), in a building across the road from school. Looking far older than her years, with the poise and demeanour of a model waiting for discovery, he’s instantly smitten and attempting to impress his new mate Darren (Ben Carolan) he crosses the social divide and begins an awkward conversation. He invites her to be the star of his band’s next video clip. Only trouble is Conor doesn’t have a band. And so a rapid-fire recruitment kicks off, with rabbit-obsessed multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) to first to be consulted; soon a makeshift bunch has been rounded up with Darren assigned cameraman duties.

Sing Street (2016), John Carney’s third straight musical feature is almost as good as his earlier two, the Oscar-winning Once (2007) and his American-set follow-up, the wholly underrated Begin Again (2013) which featured inspired, uninhibited performances from Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. Sing Street fits comfortably into Carney’s CV but it’s a welcome, feel-good variation on a theme. The fondness for the era shines through, especially in constant references to the music of the mid-80’s like the explosion of British glam rock and the influential medium of the freshly utilised video clip.

Walsh-Peelo, in his first feature role, is incredibly assured and his naturalness on screen is a reflection of the young performer’s background in stage and television performances. His bandmates have all been cannily cast; each is given brilliant one-liners or physical gags that enhance their endearing, outsider status – the kind of status that many might reluctantly admit to feeling a recognisable affinity with. The glamourous Boynton has a genuine on-screen magnetism too. Raphina is a fascinating character, part ingénue, part tragic, revealing beauty mixed with a credibly deglamourized vulnerability as her emotional core is exposed by life’s bitter failings.

Carney’s themes are unoriginal ones but, attached to the lives of appealingly real characters, they’re not without resonance: ardently chase down your dreams, believe in a right time to take your chance in life or be condemned to carry the burden of regret forever. Stacked with hilarious asides, visual gags – the final footage of the band’s first, alley-shot clip is a side-splitting classic – and even some raw, 80’s inspired pop songs that believably bring this band’s spirit to life, Sing Street is wonderful entertainment of the purest sort, an uplifting tribute to heedless young love, rebelliousness, revelling in new experiences, and the music that matters to its generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love & Mercy

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Two extraordinary performances elevate Bill Pohlad’s insightful contemplation of the troubled life and times of influential Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, played as a younger man by Paul Dano and later on by John Cusack. Love & Mercy (2015) works brilliantly as an intense, disconcerting character study and as a commentary on the harmful side effects of creativity. The nonlinearity of the narrative, which sees the story split between two time frames, is effective in bleeding together the most crucial segments of Wilson’s life and recovery. Back and forth we smoothly transition from the heady days of the creation of seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds to Wilson’s 1980’s post-depressive recovery which was undermined by the venal, corrosive influence of his therapist-cum-legal guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (played with a suitable toxicity by Paul Giamatti).

In both cases, Pohlad concentrates uncomfortably on the dark undercurrent of dysfunction that plagued both Wilson’s erratic creative processes and his beleaguered attempt to reach a psychological equilibrium. His potential saviour in this later era is car saleswoman Melinda Bedletter (the ever-impressive Elizabeth Banks) who helps Wilson to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. She alone is able to penetrate the fog assembled as part of Landy’s unhealthy influence on every facet of Wilson’s frighteningly compromised existence.

The conviction of all the performances is what defines this superb film. Throughout the successful Beach Boys era, Wilson was plagued by self-doubt and a streak of resolute defiance, wanting to take the band in new directions that might deviate from their successful formula but bring freshness to their output. The resulting conflict with his brothers and other band members and crew is a source of distress to Wilson who often seems to regress to a place of consoling inner calm as a means of dealing with real world anxieties. Here he finds himself both dissociating himself from reality but also discovering the fresh currents of creativity that would define his subsequent output. There are also effective peaks at his tumultuous relationship with former band manager father, an emotionally hardened figure only interested in commercial success above all else and whom Wilson could never satisfy.

Dano and Cusack, though very different performers, are equally effective in guiding us into the reverberating deepest chambers of Wilson’s psyche. Dano conveys Wilson’s genius whilst simultaneously laying bear the vulnerabilities of the man as he strove – so often against the grain of his brothers’ thinking – to extract a deeper meaning from the process of song writing. Cusack seems, in his first few scenes, likely to succumb to an overly mannered delivery, yet the idiosyncratic ticks of the drugged-up, lethally controlled older incarnation of Wilson become an increasingly vital part of what is a marvellously subtle, nuanced portrayal. Unafraid to explore the darkness of its subject’s experiences, Love & Mercy reverberates with a veracity too rarely seen in similarly themed, usually overreaching bio-pics.