Several people of my acquaintance have avoided seeing the new Irish comedy Sing Street because of suspicions that it would be “naff” or “a poor man’s Commitments”. And, if I’m honest, those were the same preconceptions I took into the cinema with me.
It would, however, be a terrible shame to miss out on this charming and vividly detailed film about a group of schoolboys in mid-1980s Dublin who form a New Romantic band primarily because one of their number wants to impress a girl.
If anything, it’s even better than The Commitments because it doesn’t go in for the slick manipulation associated with that film’s director, Alan Parker. John Carney (who also made Once) has a lighter touch and also a greater sense of depth and poignancy.
What it does share with Parker’s movie is a gentle absurdity. Everyone who has seen The Commitments tends to remember the boy waiting to enter the lifts in a tower block accompanied by a horse.
“You’re not taking him in there, are you?” he is asked. “I have to,” he replies indignantly. “The stairs’d kill ‘im.”
Where The Commitments has a horse, Sing Street has rabbits. The undemonstrative young guitarist Eamon (Mark McKenna) harbours a strong affection for them. He’s often seen cradling or stroking one. An unannounced caller at his house asks if he’s busy with anything. “Nah,” he says, “just rabbit stuff.”
Carney knows that a detail like that can effortlessly enrich characterisation. If only he had spread the love around a bit more – it’s all very well making a joke about the band members recruiting their only black schoolmate simply on the basis of his skin colour, but that tokenism gag starts to ring hollow when the character isn’t given more than two or three lines in the entire film.
Still, Sing Street is rich, thoughtful and funny in all other respects. And its period accuracy extends to some note-perfect mock-ups of what songs by a ramshackle group of Irish teenage Duran Duran copyists might actually sound like. (The accompanying videos are also hilarious.)
One in particular, “The Riddle of the Model”, has been on a near-permanent loop in my head since I saw the movie a few weeks ago. The combination of pretentiousness and affected cool is achingly right; even the sudden halt in the music before the delivery of the title is spot-on. Hardly surprising when renowned songwriters, including Gary Clark, former frontman of the band Danny Wilson (remember “Mary’s Prayer”?), had a hand in writing songs for the movie.
Hiring existing songwriters is a logical move when filmmakers need to make their fake songs even better than the real thing – think of the surging numbers written by Jim Steinman for Streets of Fire.
If we were to open up the jukeboxes in our brains, we would find in among the bona fide Desert Island Discs and enduring childhood ear-worms a smattering of these fabricated favourites – music conceived as pastiche, an imitation of what an actual band might sound like, but with enough kick and colour to ensure it will survive beyond the parameters of the film.
I can already tell that “The Riddle of the Model” is good enough to join other musical cuckoos in the nest. In fact, someone should compile a playlist – Now That’s What I Call Mocked-Up Music Vol I – of the best fake bands in cinema history. Then Sing Street, the outfit from Sing Street, could take its rightful place alongside the Rutles (Neil Innes and Eric Idle’s brilliant parallel-universe Beatles); Sex Bob-Omb (whose songs were by Beck) from Scott Pilgrim Vs the World; the Juicy Fruits (a Beach Boys send-up) from Phantom of the Paradise; the Carrie Nations (nee The Kelly Affair) from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; and, of course, Spinal Tap, whose “Big Bottom” eclipses much of the genre it was supposed to be spoofing.
Sing Street is on release.