Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Hear My Song (1991)


It's funny what can capture a child's imagination.

When this came out, I was about eleven or twelve years old. The big film of 1991 for me was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I watched it at the cinema a total of five times and that summer was spent with my mates  making our own bows and arrows and taking to the hills. 

Yet one other film captured my attention from the same year and it was this 15 certificated directorial debut from Blackpool born Peter Chelsom concerning Irish tenor Josef Locke who was a big success in the 1940s and '50s with sell-out seasons at Blackpool, five Royal Variety Performances and a reputation as a lady-killer to his name before trouble with the taxman forced him into a self imposed exile in rural Ireland. 


Not exactly the kind of film you expect a kid to be struck by, but I was a strange kid. I think its appeal stemmed from my love at the time of old Hollywood and music of Locke's era. It wasn't long before I was raiding my grandparent's collection of 78s for tracks such as I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen and Hear My Song, Violetta. I loved the man's voice. I still do in fact - it is an enduring love that has stayed with me ever since I first heard of this film and heard Locke sing. It is a love that flickers softly like a candle in my heart and is reawakened from time to time, usually by a rewatch. 

But even as a kid I knew Hear My Song was a strange film. This story of the owner of a down-at-heel Liverpool club searching for Locke in an attempt to revive his own fortunes confused me then by not being what I expected - something like a standard old style Hollywood production. There's something quite dark about the first half of the film that frankly got under my skin as a kid in a way I didn't really like. For a start it had nudity in it (c'mon I was only little - it was a couple more years before I became utterly obsessed with Tara Fitzgerald's beauty), a hefty dose of cynicism, strange and near disturbing black and white flashbacks, a devilish fat man called Mr X who could produce white doves from nowhere, and two other fat guys performing a soft shoe shuffle in the street and looking straight to camera. Most worrying of all, even now, it had Mr X assault Shirley Anne Field's character - off screen perhaps, but we see the after effects; her shaken up, make up smudged and dreams shattered. How was this a knockabout comedy with song and dance? All the keen interest I had  seemed to be crushed in those first thirty minutes.

But like a cut-and-shut car (very 'popular' at the time with Watchdog style programmes) Hear My Song is two things welded together like a weird hybrid that frankly went over my head as a child. Because the second part, right up until the credits roll, is a wonderful piece of Irish whimsy and feel-good fun that leaves you with a big smile plastered across your face, a song in your heart and a spring in your step. It's like a completely different movie once Adrian Dunbar's club owner Mickey absconds to Ireland to find both Locke and redemption. Almost immediately the sun comes out on the film and we're in The Quiet Man territory, before the film delivers some of that glitzy, breezy, life affirming nostalgia I was searching for in the first place.

What I didn't realise as a child was that you needed both sides of the coin. Granted even now, the tonal shift can still jar quite a bit, but it is the kind of British grit, the peculiar and dark flavour, to Hear My Song's opening act that allows its conclusion to soar the way it does. This isn't like a Hollywood film because life isn't like a Hollywood film, but Chelsom, along with Dunbar who also co-wrote the screenplay as well as starred in it,  both knows and believes that we can occasionally experience a little bit of that upbeat, dazzling magic. 


It's that nostalgia that Mickey has been leeching off all his life, booking third-rate music hall acts, crooners and crummy impersonators of Frank Sinatra (billed as Franc Cinatra) and Josef Locke (Mr X - is he or isn't he?) in an attempt to get the punters into his failing club and make himself enough money. Mickey's in love with showbiz, but only for his own gains. He doesn't understand it, and therefore has no respect for it or its traditions. As a man who has pretty much snogged the face off the Blarney Stone, let alone kissed it, he talks the talk, but he does not walk the walk. All Mickey wants is the glamour, with his girl Nancy (Fitzgerald) on his arm - a girl he stupidly can't even say 'I love you' too. It's only when he's lost everything in the course of one night - the club, Nancy, his friends - and he trawls the Irish countryside on a tip off to Locke's whereabouts that he realises the true price of showbusiness and the importance of the past. This lesson is so touchingly conveyed in the scene where Locke (played by Ned Beatty) stands him outside the window of a dancing school one night. There in the room is a troupe of young girls performing traditional Irish folk dancing; "Do you want to be responsible for their dreams?" he asks the younger man. It's a wonderful moment, a scene which acknowledges that the kind of fame and appeal Locke earned from his adoring public came with a heavy burden, and it's captured beautifully by Chelsom who operated so well in this curious halfway arena of reality and dreams and fantasy.


With his lesson learned and the realisation that not only should music and the past be respected but so should his love of Nancy, Mickey returns to Liverpool with the reclusive Locke in tow ready to risk it all and perform one more time in an attempt to pick up the pieces of Mickey's life as well as his own. It transpires that Nancy's mother, played by Shirley Anne Field, is none other than Kathleen Doyle, a former teenage Blackpool beauty queen and conquest of his who, in 1958, helped Locke evade justice and make good his escape to Ireland. Thus the stage is quite literally set for the biggest comeback of a generation and Chelsom creates it beautifully with a direct line to his audience's feelings. It's a stirring climax to a small and offbeat film with a big heart.


The film boasts several fine performances from both its stars as well as its supporting character actors. It was a wise move of Chelsom's to place a character of his own creation at the heart of the film and Adrian Dunbar takes the challenge by the scruff of the neck and wrestles it convincingly to the ground. Ned Beatty, that fine supporting actor of many a big American movie, gets the rare opportunity to be a true star here as Locke and he doesn't disappoint. Granted, his Irish accent isn't perfect, but he looks the part and it's perhaps indicative of how larger than life Josef Locke really was that his shoes could only be filled by someone from Hollywood. Tara Fitzgerald may not have much in her role as the love interest - especially as she disappears once the action moves to Ireland and only returns in the final reel - but she displays her star quality in a way that belies her years and relative inexperience here and gives an authentic depiction of someone you could easily believe Dunbar's Mickey has come to realise he would move heaven and earth for - and she is of course gorgeous, which helps convince here too! Shirley Anne Field adds a real touch of class in a part that recalls her breakthrough performance in Tony Richardson's kitchen sink classic The Entertainer, whilst David McCallum nails the part of trenchcoat and fedora wearing policeman Jim Abbott who is determined to bring Locke to justice. There's also a truly wonderful score from John Altman that understands and accompanies the spirit of Chelsom's film. He would later do something very similar for the spiritually-alike Little Voice.


Since Hear My Song, I've often considered what became of Chelsom. He was a very distinctive and promising talent that was uniquely British. He had this great ability to cast 'faces', such as Mickey's lugubrious bouncers John Dair and Stephen Marcus (two hardworking character actors you'd never expect to see grace a film poster, but they did here!), William Hootkins, Harold Berens or any one of the Irish actors who star here as 'Jo's Boys', as well as mix old talent (Norman Vaughn) with new (You'll see James Nesbitt here in one of his earliest roles). Because of his Blackpool childhood, he clearly appreciated the traditions of showbusiness and the British stage and music hall - which was further witnessed by his follow up movie, Funny Bones - and had a keen sense of their history too. Much of Hear My Song is actually truthful (albeit in a stylised, exaggerated way) Locke really did evade paying his taxes and was forced to flee the UK to Ireland whereupon he was effectively a retired recluse. During this time, there really was a Mr X touring the club circuit who would neither confirm nor deny that he was the Josef Locke, and many of Locke's former lovers (and there were indeed many) actually came forward to claim that he was the real deal. With all this in mind, it's a real shame that Chelsom relocated to the US to turn out a string of disappointing films that culminated with a Hannah Montana movie. He deserved better, and I hope he gets it again one day.

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