Irish writer/director John Carney has stumbled on his own niche. Seemingly inspired by the 1991 hit movie The Commitments, Carney has crafted his own cottage industry of films about unlikely musicians who team up to make beautiful music together (see 2007’s Oscar-winning Once and 2013’s Begin Again).
Set in Dublin in 1985, at a time when Irish immigrants were flocking to London for work, Sing Street (The Weinstein Company) centers around a family coming apart at the seams. In an effort to make ends meet, broke and bickering parents Robert (Aiden Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy, who appeared in The Commitments!) decide to send musically-inclined Conor (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), 15, the third of their three offspring, to the Christian Brothers school on Synge Street. Immediately zoomed in on for being “too posh” for the school, Conor is abused by principal Brother Baxter (Don Wycherly) and relentless school bully Barry (Ian Kenny).
However, Conor finds new purpose in life when he meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who lives across from the school in a girls’ home. Raphina, not much older than Conor, has a much older boyfriend and big dreams of a modeling career in London. But that doesn’t deter Conor, whom Raphina has nicknamed Cosmo, in his pursuit of her.
With the aid of smooth-mumbling classmate Darren (Ben Carolan), as well as fellow student musicians Eamon (Mark McKenna), Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) and others, Conor forms a band, inspired by the popularity of music videos and encouraged by stoner older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). Brendan, who in taking control of Conor’s musical education, watches his own failed music dreams coming alive.
As the band, named Sing Street, evolves, so does Conor and his appearance. He incorporates visual influences ranging from Duran Duran to the Cure to Spandau Ballet and other superstar acts of the era. Conor and Eamon also become something of a powerhouse songwriting duo and the results are heard throughout the film. Where Carney’s Once was a far more serious and heartbreaking musical saga, Sing Street goes for a lighter touch. That doesn’t make its message of following your dream any less enjoyable or melodic.
It’s hard to imagine that a film set in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, featuring a pre-resignation Richard Nixon, could provide viewers with enough comedic material to elicit laughter, but Liza Johnson’s lighthearted trifle Elvis and Nixon (Amazon Studios) does just that. Based on the Oval Office meeting between Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) and Nixon (Kevin Spacey), immortalized in the famous photograph, the film brings some levity to an otherwise dire time in history.
Responding to the unrest Elvis sees on the multiple screens in his Graceland TV room (leading him to draw his pistol and fire at the offending idiot box), he pens a letter to then President Nixon, offering his services (including his karate skills) in exchange for an official badge and title (all undercover, of course). Calling on longtime associate Jerry (Alex Pettyfer), Elvis leaves Memphis and heads to Washington DC to hand-deliver his missive and then checks into a hotel awaiting word from the President.
Eventually, the letter makes its way to Nixon, and with eager aides Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Chapin (Evan Peters) nearby, a meeting is arranged. There are several humorous moments leading up to the meeting. The meeting itself, in which Elvis violates practically everything he agreed to prior to entering the Oval Office, is very funny. But there’s something slightly off about the whole venture. Of the two, Shannon earns Elvis’ top billing, owning every scene in which he appears, and narrowly avoiding making the King the caricature he had become. Spacey’s Nixon, however, is unnecessarily wacky, slithery and ghoulish. Physically and socially awkward, Nixon comes off as more of a desperate buffoon than ever before.