Granted, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land deserves its big basket of nominations and will probably win the Best Picture Oscar barring a last-minute, anti-Trumpian nod to Moonlight, but I’d like to take a few minutes here to talk about a hardly-seen Irish comedy/musical currently streaming on Netflix.
Sing Street is by Dubliner John Carney, known for two other very fine indy films about music, Once and more recently, Begin Again with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. He writes witty, likeable characters, completely understands the emotion and power of music, and manages to put you in a good mood using gritty. vulnerable characters we can easily identify with. “Street” does that in spades, telling the tale of Conor (played by newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a sweet, gullible ‘80s lad who wants nothing more than to become a rock musician. Transferred to a tough Dublin boys school by his parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen) and inspired by a local rebel girl he has a crush on named Raphina (Lucy Boynton), he gathers a small gang of goofy misfits together to start a rock band and film a rock video, and the results are hilarious, turbulent, and life-affirming.
Basically, Sing Street has the exact same message La La Land does about listening to and following your creative dreams, but the two films couldn’t be more different in their approach. La La Land, while magical and beautifully staged, is obsessed with being a tribute to Hollywood musicals while it’s poking mild fun at L.A., and in the end, even though there are many things worse than looking at Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling for two hours, I never felt completely connected to their characters. The movie has a perfectly crafted sheen and polish to it, like a hit single by the Eagles, yet it often seems a little too aware of itself at the expense of good storytelling.
Here’s an example. The opening one-shot musical number on the freeway, likely to go down as one of the great filming achievements ever, would have been far more effective if it had happened five or ten minutes into the film, rather than kicking it off. Having just sat down in the theater, I wasn’t prepared for its immediacy, for throwing us into its rekindled genre right out of the box. If Chazelle had set up the two leads for a few minutes and let them drive onto the freeway and get stuck in the slowdown traffic, suddenly turning the scene into a musical number would have been completely magical and delivered the viewers into his musical tribute on a silver platter.
I much preferred Chazelle’s last film, the brilliant, mesmerizing Whiplash, which was just as smart (if not more so) about music and established an unforgettable human conflict between student and teacher. La La Land, while inventive in many ways, feels less organic and more like Chazelle really wanted to win an Oscar. And he no doubt will, but if you prefer some endearing, emotional, unbridled fun with characters more grounded in reality, do not miss Sing Street.