I accidentally came across To Live To Sing when the virtual reality show I wanted to see was in a venue with a low capacity. I’m glad I saw it.
The film begins with a show of local performers in a Chinese city. The show starts with a modern fan dance by schoolgirls. It’s then followed by the Jinli Sichuan Opera Troupe: a local troupe that performs traditional Chinese opera. Right after the show, the opera troupe goes back to their own end of the city where they put on their own daily show. They perform every day at the same time at the same small theatre and entertain the same local crowd they’ve charmed for years. They rehearse well and they get along mostly fine. They have their own disputes on how to do something artistically, but it doesn’t last long. The Troupe is led by Zhao Li whom oversees everything. Her niece Dan Dan, who was orphaned at a young age and raised by Zhao, is seen by Zhao as the future of the troupe as most are aging.
Things are changing in the area they live. A lot of old homes are being crushed under government orders in order to build new developments. The theatre is under threat. This will not only mean the end of the theatre but the end of the opera troupe too. Zhao is frustrated as her theatre doesn’t attract crowds big enough. The others are worried too, but they try to make plans fearing the worst. Dan Dan however sees this as a breakthrough moment as she always dreamt of being a pop star instead of being confined to an opera troupe where she only gets paid 10%. During the time of frustrations, Zhao notices a dwarf in Chinese opera wear. She tries to spot him out, but he runs away.
Zhao is trying to negotiate with the government about keeping her theatre. However she knows it will be uncertain due to the small crowds that come to her theatre. Zhao is very forbidding of any modernisms that come to the theatre. She is strict on tradition. Then one night when she’s out, she notices the dwarf. She tries to follow him but loses focus of him. She is by a night club and she is drawn to the music. Then the announcer announces a singer for her first performance. It’s Dan Dan, and in a showy dress. Dan Dan notices Zhao in the crowd and can’t sing. The two have a fight outside where Dan Dan walks off furiously. The following day, Zhao confessed to Dan Dan that she always saw her as her daughter. Dan Dan becomes more committed to the troupe.
Zhao has another encounter with the dwarf and the dwarf takes her to a restaurant. There she sees one of the men negotiate a future job deal. Feeling the threat harder, Zhao decides one day to break with tradition and do a show that fuses modern with traditional. The troupe is welcoming of it. They perform the show with the mix of modern and traditional. The crowd loved it, but Zhao notices the spirit of the dwarf as it takes her to a mysterious land of Chinese art and culture.
Despite the audience pleased with the performance, Zhao can’t lose focus as an official from the party will be attending a show to see whether to keep the theatre up or not. They get a chance! However it’s a very slim one as the areas nearby are being crushed. The night before, Zhao has the same fantasy of the dwarf taking her to that land. Then the day of the show. The audience is ready. The players are ready, but the official is not to be seen. There has to be a wait and it’s making the crowd impatient. Then the official finally arrives and they are able to put on their show. Just as the show is happening, Zhao is again taken away to that imaginary place. The show she’s in is a dazzling trip of the imagination, until the character played by Dan Dan is stabbed. It all falls apart.
We then learn that the official decided to have the theatre removed. The troupe is heartbroken, even though some talk about plans of what to do after. The next day where there’s no show, members of the local audience show up and wonder why know show? The film flashes five years later with Zhao and Dan Dan returning to the same spot and what’s become of it. They see the development and the ruins. However Zhao sees the dwarf again. Possibly to send one last message.
The film is a common story about art attempting to stay alive. The film also touches on the subject of gentrification. We see it all around us; old buildings being crushed for new developments with big profits in mind. I see it a lot in Vancouver. Here it shows it happening in the People’s Republic of China. In most countries, they have the freedom where they can come bring this issue up to the government. Not all chances work out successfully, but they’re still given a fair chance. In China, you’re chances are very limited with a chance that’s slim to none. When the government says it will happen, it will happen. Zhao was lucky to have that one chance where she could prove to the government the importance of her opera. It was unsuccessful but she still had it.
The film also showed another aspect or battle. It also showcased the battle between traditional art and the more modern art or entertainment that’s the call of the day. Without a doubt, Zhao is a purist of the traditional Chinese opera and starts off as forbidding to the new ways and the new sounds. We should not be surprised that she would be furious if she saw Dan Dan become a contemporary pop star. Despite her belief in traditionalism, she does convince herself to welcome the modern sounds and even mesh it into the traditional opera. We see that a lot in many countries of mixing traditional or classical with the modern. It’s actually very successful in many countries. It proves to be a success here too. However the film sends a message that even with modernisms, the traditional should not be lost. It should still be admired and celebrated.
One thing the film tried to make clear with the story is of the spirits of art and how it exists inside Zhao. You may notice there are many times a dwarf in opera garb is in Zhao’s vision. The dwarf leads Zhao to many images all telling the story of what will happen. However the dwarf doesn’t always lead Zhao to images of a happy ending. That image where the opera comes alive in Zhao’s dreams but leads to the stabbing of Dan Dan is what would send the message of the bad fate of the opera troupe and its house. However it’s right at the end where when it appears all has been long lost at the end, it’s not. The spirit of art still remains even in the ruins.
This is the first film I’ve seen from Chinese-Canadian writer/director Johnny Ma. Living in Vancouver, he’s able to do Chinese stories that would not be the most welcome in the People’s Republic. His first feature from 2016 Lao Shi was about battling bureaucracy and legal manipulation in China. The film was shown at the Hong Kong film festival but not in Shanghai. This film was shown in both Shanghai and Hong Kong. It doesn’t depict the government that bad here. Instead the focus is on art and its attempt to survive. Johnny does a very good story and is good at sending a message, but it is a bit uneven in its storyline. The film also has a real opera troupe as its cast and they all play fictional versions of themselves. That’s another quality to the film. It does make you wonder how they’re doing in their home country. The actors all did well by being themselves when they had to, performers when they had to, and actors when they had to. Zhao Xiaoli and Gan Guidan stood out the most as the two did show a close chemistry in the film that made the aunt/niece relationship look real.
To Live To Sing is a story of artistic ambitions with a bittersweet ending. However it’s a good and colorful, albeit imperfect, reminder that art will triumph.
2016 was seen as a weak year for comedies, unless they were animated. Possibly the most overlooked gem of 2016 was the Irish musical comedy Sing Street. I passed it up when it first came out, but I finally saw it recently. I’m glad I did.
We see Conor Lawlor strumming his guitar in his bedroom. Conor is a 15 year-old boy living in a shabby suburb of Dublin in 1985. Right now, Ireland is going through difficult times. It’s economy has been hit hard and many young people are fleeing to the UK, most notably London, for a future. His family is also going through difficulties as his father is struggling in his architecture practice and is struggling in his marriage and drinks excessively. Because of that, Conor is taken out of his high-class Catholic school and put into an all-boys free state school in Synge Street. A move older brother Brendan objects to, knowing how terrible the priests are there.
Things don’t go well for Conor on the first day. Being the new kid, he gets bullied. On top of it, he has the principal Br. Baxter giving him a hard time because he’s wearing brown shoes instead of black shoes in the dress code. Conor does end up with a bully name Barry but he makes a new friend in Darren who has big-time entrepreneur dreams. Conor also meets a 16 year-old girl named Raphina living at the orphanage nearby the school. He learns that Raphina is a budding model who’s headed to London. Conor impresses Raphina saying he’s in a band.
Now it’s up for Conor to create the band with the help of Darren. Darren is quick to act as Conor is introduced to Eamon: an awkward looking teen with a passion for music and can play many an instrument. Conor is able to meet a local black teen who is mostly shunned away from the others and two other awkward but musically-inclined students from his school. They start out pretty flat together and create a demo tape of popular 80’s songs. Conor gives it to Brandon but he’s unimpressed. He instructs Brandon not to be a cover band but do their own original stuff. That helps Conor to meet with Eamon to compose a song about his infatuation with Raphina: The Riddle Of The Model. The boys try on various costumes for filming a video and Raphina even volunteers to be their makeup artist and ingenue.
The song and video impress Brendan, feeling they’re off to a good start. However Conor’s rocker image of dyed hair and makeup gets on the nerves of Br. Baxter who insists in turning all boys into men at the school. Baxter even grabs Conor and washes the makeup off his face in a bathroom sink with hot water. But Conor and the band are undaunted. They continue making music and Raphina even advises that Conor be known as Cosmo. Conor develops the self-confidence to stand up to school bully Barry. The romance between Raphina and Conor heat up too, despite Raphina claiming an older man is her boyfriend. Conor even talks of sailing to London with Raphina.
However things soon take a turn for the worse. Conor’s parents are on the verge of separating with the mother moving in to her new lover’s place. Plus Raphina doesn’t show up when Sing Street are shooting a Back To The Future style video for their song Drive It Like You Stole It. Raphina later revealed she was set to leave for London, but her boyfriend abandoned her. A disheartened Conor breaks up with her. The breakup affects Conor in writing new songs for the band.
However it’s Brendan who encourages him to get back with Raphina and get back into playing. It’s through Brendan’s own personal feelings of past failures that drive him to give Conor the advise. Sing Street have a chance to perform a gig at school. Conor even offers Barry a chance to become a roadie for the band to escape his abusive household. The band performs their gig to the delight of the school and a condescending Br. Baxter looking on in disappointment, but they saved the best for last. The film ends not as one would expect but one that would leave the audience happy and hopeful.
I won’t deny this is a common story you’d expect to see in a film. I’m sure the story of a person growing up in a trash-bin of a city starting a band has been done before. The thing with this story is that for a common story like this to work again, the characters have to connect with the audience. They have to make the audience want them to succeed. The film succeeds in making the audience want Conor, or should I say ‘Cosmo,’ and Sing Street to succeed. The film succeeds in making the audience want Conor win Raphina’s love. The film succeeds in making the audience want the bullying of Barry to Conor to end and for Conor to get even with Br. Baxter. The connection of Conor with the audience is one of the biggest elements of magic in this story.
It’s not just the connection of Conor with the audience. It’s the connection with Raphina too. You get a sense Raphina is the right one for Conor, despite being confused about her love to her older boyfriend. However you get a sense that Conor will win her love. Raphina believes in the band and believes in Conor. You can see it in her eyes. Also Raphina shares Conor’s dreams of leaving for London. Seeing how unpromising Ireland looked with its economic drabness back then and the people seeing the priests as ‘rapists’ leaves you sensing life would be better for the both over in London.
It’s also the connection with Brendan with the audience too. Brendan is the first character in the film outside of Conor that’s easy to like because Brendan believes in Conor’s talents. Brendan’s also the type of brother that would be honest about how Conor is doing. Even after he disses what Sing Street does at first, he will give Conor words of encouragement. He will give Conor music albums to give him a sense about what makes rock and roll. It’s Brendan’s embrace of music in both its past influences and future directions that become a huge boost for Conor. However it’s also Brendan’s past failures that we get a better understanding. We see why Brendan pushes Conor in that scene after the parents’ separation and he throws a violent fit over his past failures. Because Brendan views himself as a failure who doesn’t have a chance, so he wants Conor to chase his dreams and be the one that has what it takes to go to London. It’s easy to feel for Brendan. It’s also easy for a viewer to see their own feelings of failure and regret in Brendan too.
With this being a film about a rock and roll band, the music has to be as important as the story itself. Brendan’s embrace for music is a big quality of the film, but it has to rub off on Conor as he’s the one with the gift of music. The film gets focused on the themes of music like themes of love, themes of heartache, themes of frustration, themes of emptiness and themes of hope. We learn about the ‘happy-sad’ feeling that we all get, but may not know it. The ‘happy-sad’ element is definitely influential in music. Now once all the themes and elements of music are put together, the film has to have catchy songs. The film succeeds in doing so with songs like Riddle Of The Model, Drive It Like You Stole It and Brown Shoes. Brown Shoes made the perfect end-number for the school show. Even music from other musicians like Duran Duran, The Cure, The Jam, and many others add to the theme of music in the film. The film is as much about music as it is about love and dreams.
Writer/director John Carney succeeds in delivering an enjoyable film to the big screen. Music has been a common theme in past films of his like Once and Begin Again. He succeeds here again in delivering a film that’s enjoyable and keeping you engaged in the story. The film featured a very good debut performance for Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who was 16 years old when this film debuted at Sundance 2016. Ferdia is actually a singer who has performed professionally as a child in Ireland for years. This is his first acting role and he does an excellent job. Lucy Boynton also did a very good job in playing Raphina. The best thing is she made Raphina appear older than she really was. Jack Reynor was also very good as Brendan. He made Brendan into a likeable character, but also made you feel for him too.
Sing Street is a musical comedy that delivers excellently. It delivers a story and characters that connect with the audience very well. It also delivers entertaining music, which is what a film about a rock and roll band should do.