Irish pop culture has never been represented well in films. Roddy Doyle adaptations such as The Commitments (1991), The Snapper (1993), and The Van (1996) certainly shone a light on areas not seen by the British, from the Commitments' coda with Bernie singing in a Country and Irish band to Colm Meaney fancying RTE gameshow hostess Theresa Lowe. The fact is that Ireland's film industry up until recently was a continuous wave of fits and starts, usually buoyed by tax exiles. For every Neil Jordan who makes a scathing expose of the showband scene like Angel (1982), there's the international launching point of The Company of Wolves (1984). But there's few films about Irish pop culture. There's no Roscommon Rambler, starring Big Tom McBride as a singing truck driver on the run from dissident gun-runners, and it wasn't until the recent likes of the Hardy Bucks Movie that the idea of the Culchie was fully encapsulated in film, in an authentic manner.
Hear My Song (1991) is odd, when it comes to this. Though by a British director and set mostly in England, its writer/star Adrian Dunbar is from Enniskillen, plays an Irishman, the film is set mainly in the Liverpool Irish community (which aside from Alan Bleasdale's raucous and noisily overblown proto-Phoenix Nights farce No Surrender (1985) and 1957's Violent Playground has been little explored on screen), the lead characters are Irish, and the film was almost entirely shot in Ireland, with Dublin's Westland Row doubling for Liverpool. And most of all, it is a magic realistic fantasy about legendary light-tenor Josef Locke, giving a comeback concert while in tax exile in his native Ireland.
Dunbar plays Mickey O'Neill, an Irish club owner in Liverpool who needs to find an act, pronto, or the club will be shut. While flirting with Nancy (Tara Fitzgerald), he is tipped off by bouncer Derek (stuntman/bit part vet John Dair, in a rare speaking part) and Gordon (Stephen Marcus) to get Josef Locke. After a failed attempt to get customers in with tribute act Franc Cinatra (Irish comic/cabaret crooner/Castlebar Song Contest vet Joe Cuddy), Mickey finds Mr. X (William Hootkins, for once showing his versatility), a Shadow-costumed man of mystery who may or may not be the fugitive Locke. But Mr. X is exposed as a fraud by both Nancy's mother Kathleen (Shirley Anne Field), an ex-lover of Locke's, and Liverpool CID man Abbott (David McCallum, a vet of Violent Playground, at this time flitting across the Atlantic caught between doing notorious BBC flop Trainer and exploitation films and syndicated TV guest spots in the States). Determined to get Locke, O'Neill travels to rural Ireland with old pal Fintan (a young, moustachioed James Nesbitt) to bag Locke (Ned Beatty).
For one thing, the film is a fantasy. There are fantastic magic realism elements there, as per director Chelsom's work (the more outwardly supernatural Funny Bones (1995) is almost a spiritual sequel), but apart from Locke being in exile and the idea of a knockoff act called Mr. X, the whole thing is fiction. Even Locke's Irish retreat, here portrayed as being in a tiny backwater with one pub, somewhere along the West was in real life in suburban Greystones, an odd choice, as Greystones is only a few miles away from the film's studio locations at Ardmore, in Bray, Co. Wicklow. Beatty, nominated for a Golden Globe is a solid presence. His accent isn't great, but it kind of works with the character being this stateless has-been. And everyone is perfectly cast, including Dunbar who is affable as the jokey would-be master of disguise desperate to save his club and his community. Hootkins is wonderfully smarmy, and playing up the blarney in an attempt to disguise, per his real-life counterpart, that he isn't actually Irish.
And the film is full of Irish faces, a pre-Father Ted Frank Kelly and Pat Laffan pop up as taxi drivers, West Brit theatre folk like Aiden Grennell pop up as Brits in flashback, and there's a rather out-of-place cameo from legendary Irish showband saxophonist Paddy Cole as one of Locke's Irish band. Plus as himself, Norman Vaughan, some years past TV fame in The Golden Shot, and indeed the odd film appearance in the likes of Twinky (1970) and Come Play With Me (1977), adding to the weird timeless nature of the film. Coupled with Fitzgerald fashions, the cod-50s atmosphere (almost a parody of Dennis Potter's noir stealings), and the quaint Irish countryside full of Morris Minors and flat caps, it could be any time.
Chelsom colours his world, full of aul wans drinking Guinness. Though set in Liverpool, with Irish accents ahoy, it could easily be Dublin (because it is), while the rural Irish setting is a little cliched, but there's enough details there (i.e. posters in the Gaiety) to make it feel real, that we know that not all Ireland is like this. In an ironic way, it probably illustrates Irish clubland more than it does English clubland, which Chelsom writes a more pointed love letter to in his followup, Funny Bones, about his native Blackpool.