A great soundtrack goes beyond the songs. It should collectively tell a story, capturing the film’s spirit without waving its hands around in the air or feeling like an audiobook adaptation. Think back to Cameron Crowe’s double-platinum soundtrack to his 1992 dramedy, Singles, and how fresh selections by Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Chris Cornell, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Paul Westerberg not only served as a touchstone to the ’90s alternative scene, but also bottled up the film’s themes of love, heartbreak, and all the angst in between.
Director John Carney knows a thing or two about the art of the soundtrack. His 2007 romantic musical drama, Once, swept up the world with emotional original songs by the film’s principal leads, the Swell Season’s own Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, winning an Oscar for Best Original Song. His 2014 followup, Begin Again, didn’t actually turn into a similar pop culture phenomenon, but it did earn an Oscar nomination and also connected Carney with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, who returned for the assist on his latest musical venture, Sing Street.
Set in 1985 Dublin, the film follows a quiet 14-year-old named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who’s been relocated from a private institution to a rough public school after his parents fall on hard times. Everywhere he roams he’s confronted with drama and conflict, from a nasty school bully to an eerie headmaster to his dissolving family life. His only escape is music, which he comes to learn under the guidance of his older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor). It’s not until he meets the beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton) that he decides to finally start a band.
Conor’s musical self-discovery fuels the film’s accompanying soundtrack. Save for the left-field inclusion of Motörhead (“Stay Clean”), the record’s flooded with all the go-to acts from that era: Duran Duran (“Rio”), The Jam (“Town Called Malice”), The Cure (“Inbetween Days”), Hall and Oates (“Maneater”), Joe Jackson (“Steppin’ Out”), and M (“Pop Muzik”). There’s nothing really special about revisiting these ’80s classics — after all, how many times have we heard “Rio” by now? — but it’s an absolute thrill to hear how they pair up with the original compositions.
Written by Carney and Danny Wilson singer-songwriter Gary Clark, the seven tracks that make up Sing Street’s oeuvre tickle with joy and charm. Just like Carney insisted to us, they’re not parodies, but brilliant designs cut from the same cloth used by their inspirations. One of the film’s most memorable visual gags is seeing Conor walking into school dressed in a certain style akin to one of those bands, and the soundtrack sort of works that way. We listen to The Cure and then discover how Conor adopted the “happysad” of Robert Smith for “A Beautiful Sea”.
The same thing happens for standout track “Drive It Like You Stole It”. After soaking in both Hall and Oates and Joe Jackson, Sing Street’s swinging original fires up, and while it’s beat-for-beat the same rhythm section as “Maneater”, it’s altogether a different song. Carney and Clark wire the three-and-a-half minute lollipop with an addicting refrain and a sugary chorus that screams for a dance floor. It’s so easy to find yourself clicking back again and again, which speaks to the pair’s ability to write a catchy ’80s pop song that doesn’t have to be one we’ve already heard again and again.
Walsh-Peelo sings on all of the original tracks, and his delivery is pretty unbelievable given that he’s both a young teenager and a relative unknown. He truly shines on the album’s more sentimental fare, specifically “Up” and “To Find You”. The former capitalizes on that youthful, star-crossed feeling of falling for an angel next door while the latter sounds like a ballad Charlie Brown might sing if he had pipes like this Irish balladeer. It’s remarkable that Carney and Clark can toe the line between material that sounds professional and, you know, like it could come from scrappy teens.
Case in point: “The Riddle of the Model”. The first track Sing Street writes is naturally the first to appear on the album. It’s the shortest of the bunch, too, and easily their most rigid; but like any band with a promising future, there’s a spark to the offering. Clark leaps from the rocky verses to a marching chorus that could turn the head of any UK outfit, from today or yesterday, and it’s all about the hooks — that key change, that disco lick, and that juicy bass line. On later tracks “Girls” and “Brown Shoes”, there’s a similar adolescence at hand, mostly stemming from scholarly rebellion, only they’re far more confident.
Levine caps off the soundtrack with “Go Now”, a meditative, polished jogger of an epilogue that feels as if some omniscient narrator has stepped in. It’s a refreshing escape, though, and one that slowly tugs down the proverbial velvet curtain in a fashionable manner. But really, if you’ve made it this far, you’re already getting up to flip the damn thing over and start again. That was the power of Once and that’s the overwhelming mastery of Sing Street. Nearly a decade later, Carney has carved out another must-have soundtrack chock-full of favorites that will fluctuate upon every listen.
Your move, Oscar.
Essential Tracks: “Drive It Like You Stole It”, “Up”, and “A Beautiful Sea”