Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for a truly delightful movie called Sing Street.
When High School Musical premiered on the Disney Channel in January 2006 — yup, it’s been a decade — no one could have predicted how massive a phenomenon it would become. In retrospect, though, it makes total sense. HSM is the story of Troy Bolton (Zac Efron), the star basketball player at East High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He meets Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) at a New Year’s Eve party over winter break. Gabriella calls herself the “freaky genius girl,” and she just wants to read her book. Instead, she finds herself forced to do karaoke with Troy, and — wouldn’t you know it? — they both have some pipes! Their song sparks an instant connection, and they swap numbers. When Gabriella shows up at East High as a transfer student after winter break, Troy is both happy to see her, but also scared. His basketball teammates can never know about the singing thing. This is a school where everyone sticks closely to the status quo, never deviating from the key characteristic or activity for which they’re best known. The math and science geeks stick with the math and science geeks. The jocks can only play sports. For Troy, the idea of going against the grain and coming out publicly as someone who wants to sing in the school musical is absolutely terrifying. We all know what happens in High School Musical by now. Gabriella convinces Troy that he can be defined by more than one thing, just like she can be known for more than her intelligence. Suddenly, everyone at East High starts admitting that they’ve got other talents, too. In the end, everyone joins together for a rousing song and dance number about how “We’re all in this together,” because they’ve learned to support one another in all of their ambitions — be they creative, athletic, intellectual, or otherwise. It’s a truly sweet story, and that’s why it spawned two sequels. High School Musical is a glossy, sugar-coated look at what can actually be a much tougher situation, though. When Gabriella starts at East High, she’s immediately welcomed into the honor students’ clique with open arms. She and Troy like each other, but it’s not until the third movie that they even share so much as a chaste kiss. They do have to practice a lot to nail their final duet at the big musical audition in the first HSM — all the while hiding their seemingly illicit singing from their friends, teammates and parents — and these struggles are extremely welcome in an otherwise low-stakes movie. After all, it’s a Disney production. You’re not going to watch these characters have sex, drink, or worry about money. In this world, deciding whether you can be a jock and perform in the high school musical is the hardest decision you have to make.
Perhaps this lack of action and grounding in reality frustrates you now that you’re older. Maybe it bothers you because you lived through high school yourself and know that HSM paints entirely too rose-colored a portrait of the teenage experience during what can be four incredibly painful years. Well, the good news is that John Carney’s new movie Sing Street is a real, yet delightful take on a high school musical, this time set in Ireland. It has many similarities to our beloved HSM, but just like Carney’s past work (Once and Begin Again), it manages to be grounded in reality with escapist moments that don't feel forced or fake. You won’t find any glossing over of real-world events in Sing Street, which all hinges on the back of its effervescent star, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. Just like Zac Efron was basically unknown when he was chosen from a massive casting call to star in HSM, so, too was 16-year-old newcomer Walsh-Peelo plucked from obscurity to charm us all as the Sing Street’s protagonist, Conor. “We did a screenplay workshop and open casting calls...One of the requirements for the casting call was that everyone was able to play [guitar] and sing...You test people out before you give them the roles, and he just got better and better each time we tested him out,” Carney tells Refinery29. “Also, he’s an extremely confident kid. There’s nothing stopping him. I just knew he had it in him to be able to play that character.” As Conor, Walsh-Peelo has that same balance of confidence and vulnerability that makes Zac Efron so watchable as Troy Bolton in the High School Musical trilogy. Conor is a teenager living in Ireland in the 1980s, when the country is going through an extreme economic crisis. Irish citizens are emigrating to London in droves, and Conor’s family is forced to cut costs by transferring him from his private Jesuit school to the local Christian school called Synge Street. It’s a rude awakening when he gets there. On top of that, his parents (Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen — more on him later — and Maria Doyle Kennedy) are separating. Conor’s escape comes through music. His brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) serves as his musical Obi-Wan Kenobi, providing Conor with the proper bands and albums to listen to as a musical education. These groups in turn influence the songs Conor writes and performs with the band he forms, which is called Sing Street. “You’ve got the grayness of everyday life in Ireland juxtaposed with the promise of technicolor from the pop videos on screen and the idea of running away to London,” Carney explains. “It’s not trying to save the world or anything like that. It’s about fixing the day-to-day things in Conor’s life that he can fix, and he does that through music.” Sing Street (the band) is a motley crew that’s put together in a hurried way, because the idea to form a group comes to Conor when he’s trying to impress Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an aspiring model with dreams of moving to London. As Sing Street improves, with Conor and his bandmate Eamon (Mark McKenna) serving as their John Lennon and Paul McCartney, so, too, does Conor’s ability to work through the feelings he’s having about the more upsetting changes in his life. He also approaches his crush on Raphina from a more mature perspective as he spends more time with her filming music videos and sharing the songs she inspires him to write.
Raphina ceases to serve as mere wish-fulfillment when Conor realizes that she’s not just a gorgeous girl he hopes to kiss (and maybe more). She lives in a home for orphaned girls because her father's a drunk, and her mother goes in and out of the hospital due to manic depression. “He is immediately drawn to her because she looks good, but I intended to bring out the idea that as a kid, you think that everyone is sort of an extra in your own story. Then you realize that everybody has their own story, and their own problems, and their own situation. That’s just part of growing up,” Carney says. “I think Conor starts to realize that Raphina’s problems put his to shame. Much like High School Musical, all of the various plot lines culminate during a big song and dance number. It’s very elaborate and, just like “We’re All in This Together,” takes place in a high school gym. In a very similar manner to the HSM finale, the number is also a dream sequence. Yes, I hear your protests right now about how "We're All in This Together" is technically supposed to take place within the reality of the film, but when does everyone in a school come together to break the fourth wall and sing directly to the camera about how they’re all experiencing life’s difficulties in tandem? It really skirts the line into non-diegetic territory. In Sing Street, the band assembles to play at the End-of-Term Disco. Conor wants to film one of their now-signature music videos for the band’s new song, “Drive It Like You Stole It.” His vision for the video is a 1950s prom like the one in Back to the Future. As everyone dances in the gym, the crowd will part, and Raphina will walk in, spotting him onstage singing. Their eyes will lock, and they’ll clearly be in love. As the band assembles to practice the song with the extras, it becomes clear that Raphina isn’t going to show. Conor decides to rehearse with the sad lot of extras that have gathered (they can’t quite nail American Bandstand-style dance moves). As the song begins, the film launches into a dream sequence complete with '50s costumes, group choreography, and all of Conor’s dreams coming together. Raphina walks through the crowd. His parents dance together and kiss, their separation called off. “His brother tells him to dream big, and that's what you really get to see...That’s the first time you really see Conor getting inside his head, and what he would make if he had money and also having fixed his family problems if he had the chance. It’s sort of like a magic wand,” Carney says. We also get to see a much different side of Aidan Gillen in this scene. On Game of Thrones, he plays the devious, conniving Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. He’s one of the few characters on the merciless show to have survived to the sixth season, which is a feat. His longevity is the result of constant manipulation and scheming. In Sing Street, Gillen plays a much more charming (albeit down-on-his-luck) character, and Carney laughs when I point this out. “It’s a fun piece of casting,” he says. “[You]'re definitely going to see another side of him.” It’s especially nice to see Littlefinger cutting loose on the dance floor in the dream sequence. He’s got moves. He also plays such a typical dad, railing against his kids' taste in music. No, Duran Duran aren't The Beatles, but hey, their music videos were innovative for their time.
Sing Street’s ending — which I won’t completely give away entirely here — is much more bittersweet than High School Musical’s. Actually, it’s more like that of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, where the main characters reveal their future plans, which involve them all parting ways. In Sing Street, it’s a poignant moment that blurs the line between fantasy and reality, so again, it leaves you questioning whether or not it’s one of the videos for his idealized life that Conor’s making up in his head. That’s Carney’s intention. “Intelligent viewers will look at it as a fantasy escape sequence and not take it 100% literally….It’s supposed to be a moment of bravery on his behalf,” Carney says. It’s sort of like Troy Bolton’s decision to go to Berkeley to pursue musical theater and play basketball (seriously though, how is he going to have time to do those two time-intensive activities?), plus stay close to Gabriella, who’ll be going to Stanford. Except in Sing Street, we’re watching two teens struggle with the decision to emigrate to London to escape the poor economic conditions in Ireland. Maybe Sing Street and High School Musical don’t align 100%, but you can see that the parallels are there, right? They both demonstrate how hard it is to buck the status quo in high school, although Sing Street does it at the much more intense Synge Street School through the lens of one teenage boy’s specific family crisis (his parents’ separation). Both films demonstrate music’s ability to help teens survive the trying times of adolescence, especially when they come together to form a band or put on a high school musical. And really, there’s nothing more delightful than a bunch of teenagers finding themselves and breaking free.
Sing Street is in theaters April 15.