It is the early eighties in Dublin, and much of what the young people there want to do is move across the Irish Sea to London and try their luck there, since very few prospects arise for them in their homeland. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a sixteen-year-old boy who is given some bad news by his father (Aiden Gillen) one day: he will have to move schools to learn under the Christian Brothers at the Synge Street establishment because his parents are running out of money. He is highly disturbed by this, for the school has a reputation for bullying and victimisation - and that's just from the teachers. How can he flourish in that environment, much less put the band together he would like?
Writer and director John Carney had made his name creating music dramas for the big screen, mostly with his international hit Once, but he had ploughed the same furrow with other efforts in the same vein, including Sing Street, a loose account of what it was like for him to grow up in eighties Ireland with pop music exciting him, yet the reality of his existence making his actual participation in it seem a thousand miles away from what he was used to. He did indeed join a band before he took up directing, and there was a sense of authenticity to Conor's adventures that not every coming of age yarn that featured music so heavily was lucky to contain. Or at least there was up to a point.
If you're one of those people who watches movies set in the past and is irked when you hear anachronistic song choices on the soundtrack then it was likely this would drive you up the wall. Early on we see Conor's family watching Top of the Pops and discussing the merits of Duran Duran's Rio video, which would place the action in November 1982, but mere minutes later he is singing A-ha's Take On Me to Raphina (Lucy Boynton), the girl he desperately wants to impress, which was released years later, and the film Back to the Future was a big influence on him, not released till 1985, plus at the school disco we hear Starship's Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now from 1987... well, you get the idea, historically this was all over the place.
If that was going to take you out of a story, then you would be best advised to stay away from Sing Street, though perhaps Carney could excuse himself by pointing out it was more fantastical than its deceptively realist presentation might indicate, especially in the fairy tale ending it builds to. So if you regarded this as more being set in eightiesland rather than an accurate representation of the decade, you might get on with it a lot better, though that was still making excuses for a work that could have been a lot tighter with a little more research (or a better memory). At its heart was that message of escape, that hope for a better life away from the one you have, and how that even if you do make it out of your circumstances the new circumstances may not be anything like an improvement.
But you still have to try for that sunnier experience, else you will end up like Conor's college dropout brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) who we learn had aspirations too but they were thwarted when he was beaten down by life. Actually Conor gets a bit of a beating too, from the resident school bully and even from the headmaster who resents his moves towards self-expression, but he will have his revenge, just not through violent means, more through being smarter than those who would victimise him. The band itself was more comedic in personality, assembled from schoolfriends and with Raphina in the videos for added glamour, leading many to compare Sing Street to The Commitments. There were parallels, and this was not as accomplished as the nineties favourite, but if it did not quite break out as its own entity, more part of the nostalgia industry, at least it was clear on the benefits and cost of ambition - that much came across as authentic. Plus it was brightly performed, and some of the tunes (co-written by Carney and Gary Clark of actual eighties band Danny Wilson) were pretty good, even if the quality took a dip to sub-U2 balladry in the last quarter hour.