What Tyranny

Sing Street (2016)

Sing Street | The Weinstein Company
The Weinstein Company
At the risk of sounding very stupid: I bought myself a bath bomb the day before the election. Do you know what a bath bomb is? They’re these overpriced, colorful balls of soap, and you drop them in the tub and then you have a colorful and sometimes fragrant bath. They mean nothing. They do nothing. Shopgirls will try to convince you that they have oils and exfoliants; it’s all a lie. It’s a mirage. I thought it was a kind gesture to myself, an act of self-care. It’s nice, isn’t it, just to soak in something a little false and beautiful?

Sing Street was the first cinematic experience I had in 2016. I had seen some other movies long before I saw Sing Street in late April—films like Everybody Wants Some!! and 10 Cloverfield Lane and 45 Years had cemented their place in my memory, certainly—but this was the first time I was, forgive me, transported. It’s always so annoying to me when people say are they transported by a movie. You want to stand up and say, “uh, you’re still in a big room.” And yet, that’s movies, or the good ones at least, taking you away for a little while. Seeing Sing Street by myself in a cold Chicago spring was yet another act of self-care. The movie itself was like having a big bowl of ice cream or a mid-afternoon nap. For two hours—or if you’re lucky, 90 minutes—you get to not be you, which is sometimes the best feeling in the world.

Another person wanting—no, aching to get out of his body is Conor Lawler (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), the protagonist of Sing Street. The youngest of three in 1980’s Dublin, Conor is the victim of everything: his parents’ collapsing marriage, the crumbling Irish economy, and the red-faced, beady-eyed villain at his new school. You see, the growing recession in Ireland has forced Conor’s already-frustrated parents to take him out of his school and transfer to him to the Christian Brothers school on Synge Street (get it?), where he’s a tormented outsider. Conor’s only comfort in all of this, really, is his budding interest in songwriting and music videos, guided by the perfect stoner wisdom of his older brother Brendan (a perfect Jack Reynor, who will be Extremely Famous in about 18 months, please check back with me).

So of course, once there is a girl—and in movies like Sing Street, there’s always a girl!—a model, in fact, by the name of Raphina (Lucy Boynton), everything kicks into place. Conor needs to impress her, and quick, but the only good thing he knows is music. He knows his escape; how he transports himself away every night from the misery of both school and home. “Do you want to be in a video?” he asks her. “It’s for my band,” he adds, in no way a member of any band whatsoever.

She agrees, hesitantly, and from there Conor goes into a mad panic. He assembles a band of other kids from school in the quickest get-the-gang-together montage of all time. Conor seeks out other outcasts, like Eamon (Mark McKenna)—a musical prodigy living at home with his mom and several rabbits* while his father’s away at rehab after beating him and his mother—and Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), the only black boy in their school. Altogether, smoking cigarettes in Eamon’s shed, they decide to call themselves Sing Street (now you get it). Together the boys write songs and make music videos. One week they’re inspired by Duran Duran, the next by the Cure, then by Hall & Oates. They don’t know who they are (does any 15-year-old?) or what they’re doing (same question) but they know they love it, and for a little while they get to escape from their families and their bullies.

Raphina, of course, is there right alongside Sing Street and Conor every step of the way. She’s his muse. In a lesser movie, Raphina is merely The Girl. She’d have no background, no personality, nothing to say and nowhere to go. But Raphina is anything but. She’s headstrong and stubborn, determined to move to London and become a model. She’s also a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her father—a detail that could threaten to define her character, cast her aside into victimhood, but doesn’t. The more he learns about her, the more Conor attempts to honor her in his art. At one point, Raphina fearlessly jumps into the sea in the midst of filming a music video despite her inability to swim. After Conor rescues her, he asks why she did it, to which she says, “For our art, Cosmo. You can never do anything by half.”

There comes a moment just at the two-thirds mark of the film. It’s magical, let me tell you. In the midst of filming a new music video for their song “Drive It Like You Stole It,” Conor envisions everything he wants that he cannot have in an all-encompassing, 1950’s Americana-style prom scene. The whole band is dressed up in trim, maroon suits. Raphina is there, watching him play. His parents come together, dancing, laughing, kissing. Brendan is there, almost unrecognizable with his hair cut short, rolling up on a big motorcycle. It’s colorful and gleeful and perfect. It’s a milkshake of a scene. An afternoon picnic.

“And this lasts forever,” Brendan says early on in the film, of the Duran Duran music video he and Conor are watching together. “It’s the perfect mixture of music and visuals. It’s short, to the point. Look at this. I mean, what tyranny could stand up to that?” That’s the “Drive It Like You Stole It” sequence. What tyranny, what possible tyranny, could stand up to it?

And yet: Raphina goes off to London, Conor’s parents split up nonetheless, and his brother doesn’t get his act together.

Tyranny prevails, as it turns out.

In the days following the election, there were slews of people who would write things like, “now more than ever, we’ll need art,” and it used to make me want to tear my skin off. Now more than ever? Now more than ever we don’t need art. We need money and people and movements and protesting. We need allies and protection. We don’t need essays or prestige television or music videos or bath bombs. I mellowed out, certainly, in the weeks after, but I certainly stuck to that belief. I withdrew creatively in many ways. It wasn’t going to help anyone but myself. What was the point, anyway?

I rewatched Sing Street to write this essay, and that tyranny line—“What tyranny,” Brendan says, so certain and confident, “could stand up to that?”—hadn’t struck me in my first viewing of the film. It’s almost an aside, and yet it’s the point of it all, casually placed so early on it’d pass you by if you didn’t know to listen for it.

I pressed on with my rewatch, the line bouncing around the corners of my brain, until I got to the “Drive It Like You Stole It” sequence. It is the best scene of a movie in 2016. This I know for certain, because it’s everything you want when you make art. You don’t make art to heal the masses and to stand up to tyranny; you make art to heal yourself. You give yourself everything the world can’t provide you with: answers, closure, love, anything. That’s not to say that there isn’t art that doesn’t heal at large, or stands up to something bigger, but the art is about the artist. It’s a vision and a fantasy—sometimes a nightmare, no doubt!—put forth by the person who really needs it the most.

Conor’s music is not for his parents or his brother or even for the girl, it’s for him to know how to make himself feel joy in a world determined to suck it all out like a vacuum. It’s giving him a chance to rewrite his own narrative, one in which tyranny can’t prevail. Love wins. Love and art and music and laughter and control, really, over how the world looks. It’s an explosion of color and music and dancing. A warm bath. Fireworks.

I’ll stand by the saccharine nostalgia of Sing Street for a very long time, I believe. It’s selfish, no doubt, but it’s what heals me. It’s what makes me laugh. It transports me, annoyingly enough, to a place where this kind of thing does stand up to tyranny, means something larger, beyond both it and myself. In the end, we’re all worthy of an escape.