Even if Carney had not told us in a trailer that the story is “basically wish fulfillment of all the things I wanted to do when I was the age of the character, but didn’t do”, most of us would have grasped his desire intuitively from the large, center-screen poster of Sigmund Freud in the bedroom of “the character’s” older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor).
The stand-in for Carney is a 15 year-old kid named Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), renamed Cosmo by his gorgeous heartthrob, Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Set in economically depressed Dublin in 1985, the film intermittently leans toward social realism and just as quickly pivots away from it with allergic embarrassment. The twirl is funny, because the characters keep bashing all the backward-looking adults stuck in their nostalgia for The Beatles and penchant for cover bands (“We are future thinking,” the kids say. “Our band plays futurist music”), and yet from the film’s first frame, showing Connor’s fingers hesitatingly plucking out a tune on an acoustic guitar, to the film’s last image of Cosmo and Raphina motor-boating off into the cold misty fog of the Irish Sea, the plot functions as little more than a clichéd container for unrestrained wallowing in nostalgia for 1980s music, fashion, and film (Back to the Future, of course).
Because of money problems, Connor is sent to a downgrade school. Predictably, he crashes into trouble with the student bully and the priest bully. One issue is that his shoes are brown and his family doesn’t have the cash to buy the required black. And yet after we watch Connor “do homework” (a.k.a. listen to albums) with Brendan every night, absorbing the riffs and harmonies of A-Ha, The Cure, Culture Club, Joe Jackson and Hall and Oates, we then watch him and his band member friends stride into school the next morning accoutered from head to foot in hats, capes, make-up and shoes to match their latest musical craze. Sometimes (just to extend the repertoire? or to indicate the passage of time?) the raiment differs from the previous night’s music, so that we hear Culture Club but see Boy George, say. Love of music and dedication to art apparently transcend the mundane burdens of work slow-downs and loss of commissions, and clear the way for the boys to dress the part.
Carney’s experiment in recreating the structure of feeling of the 1980s is just slick enough to keep the affective circuits flowing. After all, this is a dandelion puffball, not the phenomenological aesthetic we see in Malick’s restaging of the 1950s in The Tree of Life, say, or Linklater’s time-capsule of the early 21st century in Boyhood. Sing Street‘s beautiful fuzzy seeds are mainly distributed by a narrow range and rapidly shifting set of fashion choices and chord progressions. But still it works, and does so for all the reasons that cultural studies scholars have noted how and why fashion both is political and stands in for political identity. Fashion problematically signals corporate branding, of course, but it also can–and in the 1980s surely did–signal social branding. Fashion establishes group identity and individual differentiation by positioning its wearers in clear but pliable networks of cultural association. [I am just diving into Tanisha Ford’s Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (UNC Press, 2015), which also draws from cultural studies research on subcultures and fashion.]
Well, I loved the film for what it is. I laughed and danced in my seat and got teary-eyed in all the right places, even when I could see through all the moves.
One thing that does seem different, and I’m sure you all will tell me if/how I’m wrong: Brendan, whose own growing-up dream was stopped in its tracks by his mother, now lives at home (like a millennial) and exhibits what seems to me unprecedented emotional empathy for this same dream-killing mother. In one scene, he sits with Connor at the top of the stairs, smoking and peering down at their mother catching a few last rays of sun in the small “garden” behind their flat. He waxes poetic about her, informing Connor that their mom is emotionally-starved and perennially unhappy. Later, Connor and Raphina talk about family drama and parental restrictions and instead of bucking against them or blithely turning back to their ardent pursuit of music and sex, Raphina stops to comment: “It’s a strange kind of love. Parents.”
It’s a strange kind of comment, that. Maybe it more fully reveals the director’s wish fulfillment than the plot of boy-meets-girl-and-forms-band. Can we re-image childhood to fit our fantasy of how it ought to have been, and also hold out empathy and compassion for the very limited and fragile parents we have in fact become?