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Review: ’80s music fantasy ‘Sing Street’ is good clean fun

In terms of tone, Sing Street falls somewhere between The Commitments and High School Musical. Set in a gritty Dublin neighborhood in 1985, the film tells the story of a band of boys who form a band in the New Romantic tradition — the glammed-out post-punk pop moment that gave us Duran Duran, Culture Club, and Spandau Ballet.

It took some guts for a boy to wear makeup to his Catholic boys’ school in working-class Dublin in 1985, but Sing Street isn’t too worried about digging into that. With blithe confidence, 15-year-old Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) stands up to bullies young and old as he follows his muse and pursues the beautiful, troubled-but-not-too-troubled Raphina (Lucy Boynton).

Sing Street is an affectionate homage to the mid-1980s music scene and gives us a vague approximation of how bands like the Cure might have looked and sounded to your average kids trying to start a band. I say vague, though, because the characters in Sing Street are most definitely not your average kids trying to start a band.

In a flight of pure fancy, Cosmo effortlessly whips up a group of boys who are nearly virtuosic on their instruments — and accomplished songwriters to boot, allowing the band to churn out catchy tunes written by writer-director John Carney (Once) with Gary Clark (not Jr.). “At the same stage,” Bono has said in praise of the film, “U2 were not as good.” That’s pretty plausible: no teenage band is as good as these guys are.

Once Sing Street (the band’s name, adapted from the name of their school) start catching their stride, it becomes obvious that we’re watching a feel-good musical — and that’s fine, because you’ll probably leave Sing Street feeling pretty good. The songs are fun to hear (although as the film goes on, they slide away from ’80s pastiche and towards the kind of emo pop purveyed by Adam Levine, who contributed a song to the soundtrack), and watching these kids try to figure out what a music video might look like will evoke fond memories of the kind of lo-fi fare that characterized the early days of MTV.

As he did with his 2007 film Once, Carney conjures up a young couple who you want to root for because they’re just so damned appealing. We’d like to believe that a kid like Cosmo could exist: a kid whose home is troubled but who finds support in a Cool Older Brother (Jack Reynor) who whips out an awesome vinyl collection to give life meaning. A kid who, in turn, goes and scoops a camera-friendly girl out of an orphanage and turns her into a star.

(If you’re troubled by the fact that the only girl involved with Sing Street is a young model who appears in the band’s videos and also dates the frontman — yes, you should be, and you should also be aware that the filmmakers do not seem to share your concern. A critique of music-industry sexism, Sing Street is not.)

Sing Street is essentially a family film, precision-engineered for gen-X moms and dads (especially the latter, I couldn’t help thinking) to take their teenage kids to — and then to take them to buy a guitar. Not a bad idea…but while you’re at it, Dad, stop by your local vinyl purveyor and pick up some Bangles and Joan Jett records too.