It looks like the one movie to beat this award season has become La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s ode to old Hollywood swept the Golden Globes and has caught the scent of Oscar gold. La La Land is a charming love story set around retro musical numbers starring two creative young people trying to break out and succeed in their chosen art forms. It is a feel-good movie full of optimism and tunes that will haunt you for weeks.
Meanwhile, Sing Street is an Irish film from micro-budget musical, Once director John Carney. It is a charming love story set around retro musical numbers starring two creative young people trying to break out and succeed in their chosen art forms. This is a feel good movie full of optimism and tunes that will haunt you for weeks.
The movies are mirror images of each other. Heck, both movies even have an identical fantasy in their climaxes where a grumpy older character scowls then suddenly breaks into dance to celebrate the heroes. La La Land is a decent movie, but why has it gotten all the attention and acclaim when 2016’s Sing Street is so similar? These are two very distinct movies in their strategies of presenting their story, but ultimately are both telling the same tale.
La La Land’s mainstream success is no surprise when you look at its cast. It stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – two of the most beautiful people in the world. Sing Street’s cast is instead full of first-time young actors. But on the other hand, this is 2017, and few of us have memories of the big Gene Kelly dance movies of the past. Old Hollywood was already ancient 30 years ago when Damien Chazelle was growing up. The fact that he was able to take something so dusty and still manage to woo modern audiences is a great achievement.
Sing Street, however, is about an era and the music we all seem nostalgic for at the moment – the ’80s. Carney is not paying homage to some fabulous past, this was his childhood. Instead, Sing Street plays like a love letter to bands like Duran Duran, The Cure, and The Clash. This is the pop music that La La Land goes out of its way to gag about, but to the characters of Sing Street, this is their entire universe.
The movie is not an idealized fantasy of the period, though. Sing Street is set in Dublin during a deep recession, and its characters are made up of teenagers who come from broken or failing families. They can see there is no future here. For them, art and music is an artistic escape, but it’s also a literal escape. They’re not choosing music; music is their only choice. La La Land‘s heroes have plenty of options; they are making art for art’s sake.
La La Land‘s couple is not richly drawn, but are rather archetypes. You come into the movie knowing where it will go, and its interest lies more in subverting your expectations, while still ending on an uplifting note.
Sing Street is all about the characters. It is the story of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in his first role), a 15-year-old kid joining a rough urban school, Synge Street – John Carney’s alma mater. He spots a beautiful girl across the street, Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and impulsively offers her a job as the model for the music video he’s making with his band. However, Conor has no band and knows nothing of music outside his stoner brother’s rants. Conor hurriedly gathers together a band of various oddballs at his school and call themselves “Sing Street”.
Raphina has an air of adult sophistication, but this is a pose as well. She has an older boyfriend and a story that she’ll be leaving for London to be a model soon. At 16, Raphina is not much older than Conor, and at first, you don’t notice how young she is under her heavy make-up and giant ’80s hair. With Conor acting more mature than his age and Raphina letting herself be a kid, it’s a great dynamic for a blossoming romance.
La La Land‘s music exists in another universe away from the story it is telling. Characters dance and sing in massive numbers, but then float back down to the “real world”, to a typical film. Gosling and Stone’s characters are not singers or dancers, and the music is just a cinematic byproduct of their infatuation with each other.
All of the music in Sing Street is diegetic. The music is the movie. The music is the whole point. The soundtrack consists of classic hits from Motörhead and Hall & Oates that the heroes listen to for inspiration, but the set piece musical hits are original works the Conor’s band wrote. The dance routines are set as the videos they’re making with Raphina or as fantasies playing out in Conor’s head.
One of the great parts of Sing Street is how the movie is about the songwriting process. We first hear the songs as little melodies and rough takes as Conor and his music nerd buddy, Eamon (Mark McKenna) have their ideas. Steadily, the song goes through recording sessions with the band until it finally gets to the full production, a jamming take on period rock set in front of the kids fooling around on the gritty Dublin streets.
Different Endings, Same Message
Sing Street’s music evolution is a steady progression towards the ultimate theme of the movie. They start out playing cheap, unoriginal covers until Conor finds his courage and writes “The Riddle of the Model” to represent his feelings towards Raphina. “Drive It Like You Stole It” is a huge catchy and inspirational tune that represents Conor’s wish to break free and live life to the fullest.
John Carney’s film is both a gritty examination of life in Dublin in the ’80s and a free indulgent fantasy. He appreciates the challenges of the time and his characters. However, he cannot help turn Sing Street into just a happy party of a movie. Who can fault him? And while Sing Street ends on just utter joy and escapism, La La Land, on the other hand, ends on a more melancholic note. For all of Chazelle’s love of Old Hollywood, he cannot help but subvert things.
Despite having opposite endings, neither answer is the wrong one. These are two movies taking very different routes, but they both have the same ultimate message: follow your dreams, let others inspire you, and take time to dance along the way.