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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Essay: Irish music in films

(Chris Smith)
2005-09-26
Films Including Irish Traditional Music

The Best and the Rest

Waking Ned Devine

This one probably pissed off most people in Ireland except for the Irish tourist board, which is ironic, seeing as how it was filmed on the Isle of Man. It's essentially a fable, or a tall tale, about how two old boys in the West run a scam on the Lotto, and the wild comic machinations they have to go through to actually pull it off. It's another film in which there is probably an excess of rural whimsy, but the various Irish character actors who've been pulled in from all over the map have a good time with it. It's sort of goofy, and its happy ending is pretty tidy, but there are three aspects that make it of interest to fans of the music.

First off, there's the casual, unforced incorporation of music into daily life in a working community, a drunk singing on his way home, a tin whistler leading a funeral procession, folk playing fiddle tunes in the pub. Second, there's Shaun Davey's score, which, though using all the surging orchestral devices of every Hollywood film, is far, far more cognizant of the beauty of traditional music and incorporates it far better. Plus, Davey, who's done several orchestral concertos for piper Liam O'Flynn, has come up with an altered melody for "The Parting Glass" which pulls off the damned near impossible task for being almost as heartbreakingly beautiful as the original.

Finally, and most importantly, the film's end, which cuts back and forth from a jumping pub to a looming car accident, actually uses traditional music, fiddler Eamonn Doyle and bodhran player Raymond MacCormac, to drive the closing scene to a climax. Without revealing anything, it's safe to say that whatever the intent of including blazing tunes-playing at this point in the film, it certainly doesn't trivialize the music's passion, ecstasy, and complex meanings.

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The Matchmaker

It's basically a silly movie, starring Janeane Garofalo, David O'Hara, and Denis Leary. Garofalo plays the PR assistant for a stereotypical Boston Irish senator whose re-election campaign is on the rocks, O'Hara (a Scotsman who's made a career out of playing "Celts-as-required", Cockney Bill Sikes in "Oliver Twist," modern and medieval Irishmen in "The Devil's Own" and in "Braveheart," and so on) is an ex-correspondent who's gone to ground in the West of Ireland, and Leary the political consultant who sends Garafolo off to Galway to try to fake up some ancestors for the Senator to use as photo-props in his campaign.

The plot's predictable---Garofalo starts out being rained on at Shannon, takes a bus full of women heading for a matchmaking festival which winds up in a wreck with some sheep, gets a tiny frigid room in the only B & B with space during the festival, and battles for bathtub space with a border collie---but the cast is full of veteran Irish character actors who seem to be having fun digging in to and even sometimes subverting Hollywood stereotypes about Irish rural folk. And it's kind of a pleasure to see a romantic comedy in which the two lead characters (Garofalo and O'Hara) look like actual human beings, rather than Hollywood cyborgs. Also, there's a great deal of skillful Irish invective in the dialogue by Karen Janszen; always a pleasure to hear rural characters cursing the way they actually do.

There is one music scene, which seems to have wandered in from another film, but which nevertheless seems to understand how music actually happens in traditional settings. Stuck on Aran by accident, Garofalo and O'Hara wind up at a singing competition in the local pub. Two actors get up and sing, "Raglan Road" and something else, before O'Hara chimes in. Regardless of the fact that the scene supports a particularly tired plot convention, it's good singing, and the setting, folk standing around with drink, singers singing impassively with arms folded, the crowded pub, "feels right." See the film if you love Aran or Janeane Garofalo, don't mind the usual "Kiss Me I'm Irish" stereotypes, and treat the singing scene as an added bonus.

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The Devil's Own

It's a bit of an odd film: I can believe Harrison Ford as an unusually handsome Irish-American cop, but Brad Pitt with his movie-star looks and portmanteau accent as an IRA fighter? But it does try to present a somewhat nuanced sense of the complicated emotions, intentions, and politics that went into the Troubles. It's not sure of its politics or its perspective: the only unequivocal Bad Guys are the senior British Army commanders and the corrupt Irish-American arms dealers, and we don't know whether we're supposed to root for Pitt or for Ford, for liberation or for anti-terrorism. But there is one scene there of interest to fans of the music.

Early on, after Pitt has escaped to New York and, under an alias, rented a basement room in Ford's family's brownstone in Queens, there's a house party to celebrate the middle daughter's First Communion. Naturally enough, all three of Ford's daughters are taken with this dashing young fella with the cleft chin and the Romantic accent, and at the party Pitt's character is treated as one of the family, drinking toasts, featured in snapshots, and dancing with the youngest daughter in his arms.

The music in the scene is supplied by several stalwarts of the New York Irish scene, including, in one memorable snippet, the legendary Paddy Reynolds. Sadly, according to Don Meade, the banjo player and music columnist who served as liaison between the producers and the musicians, Paddy's inclusion was not a product of his status. As Don said "I got Paddy to come with me because I knew that they'd go for his looks. . . . Many of the extras seem to have been similarly chosen for their leprechaun looks." On top of that, one of the actresses who had a band on the side insisted that she and her flute player should be prominently featured, and Don, who looks more like a '60s hippie than a '30s farmer, got bumped off-screen altogether: "There is one brief full-screen shot of Paddy looking very unhappy. That's because he was pissed off about me being taken out of the scene! . . . They didn't know or care that Paddy really was a great fiddler. They just liked his looks."

There's Hollywood for you, when Paddy Reynolds (who his own mother wouldn't claim was a GQ magazine cover) gets hired because of how he looks, instead of how he plays.

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This Is My Father

Boy, this is a sad movie. At one point, one character in Ireland says to another "I'm sorry that your life was so harsh," and this film is a pretty much unrelenting depiction of just how harsh it was, in the Depression, repression, and bleakness of pre-World War II rural Ireland. James Caan is a detached and dissatisfied Irish-American high school teacher who goes back to try to learn more about his deceased father (played in flashback by Aidan Quinn), and it's a sad tale.

But unlike an awful lot of other films that attempt to show the West of Ireland, this one tries to tell the complex truth: about men and women there; about politics, economics, and religion; and, for our purposes, most honestly and eloquently (if briefly) about music. This is a family effort by Quinn siblings Peter (writer/director), Aidan (star), and Declan (cinematographer), and like other films by this family of Irish-Americans (Out of Ireland: The Irish in America, a darned good documentary, comes to mind) it's an honest, hard-working labor of love, attempting to understand and depict what made the Irish the way they are. Sure, they've drawn the portrait especially bleak, but there's not much question Connemara in the late '30s was a stark, tightly-bounded place.

Quinn's character, an orphan adopted out of the workhouse who farms for an elderly childless couple, falls in love with Fiona Flynn (Moya Farrelly), who almost inevitably for this kind of film comes from a different and higher social and educational background. But they're mad for each other, and the romance works, for a little while. A lot of Irish reviewers took understandable exception to yet another depiction of rural Ireland's "medieval" quaintness. But there's one scene in which the beauty, joy, and sensual immediacy of the culture breaks out, even through the poverty of the Depression and the brutal Victorian mind-control of the period after the Dance Halls Act, when clergy and government together enacted legislation that pretty much ended the ancient and central tradition of the house ceili.

The two lead characters have come out together for the first time, riding a donkey cart to a dance in the village parish hall. The scene inside is carefully set, with lines of men seated along one wall and women on the other, couples dancing the careful ceili dances which the Gaelic League had declared should supplant the "foreign sensuality" of the old sets. They're drinking "mineral water" (actually orange juice) and watching the dancing and the band playing. And that band playing! It's a ceili band, essentially appropriate to the time and place: drums, a couple of fiddles, accordian, a vamping piano. And the bandleader, playing banjo, is none other than Kieran Hanrahan, ex- of Stockton's Wing, now a presenter of "Ceili House" on RTE, and still one of the preeminent virtuosos of the Irish tenor banjo.

Hanrahan and the rest of the band are spot-on, from their clothes to their instruments to the tunes they play; they know what this music was like, and unlike Titanic and so many other Hollywood films, they're allowed, indeed assisted, in showing what it was like. Everything's very polite, as one fella, egged on by his mates, screws up his courage to ask Fiona for a dance. The priest paces the dance floor, making sure that no none is getting too intimate physically, and then pauses at the door, where the old boy taking people's sixpences closes up the money box and hands it to him, the mandatory tithe to the church for the use of the parish hall. The priest casts a last suspicious glance over his shoulder, and then exits. Predictably, the band shifts from playing waltzes and pop songs to more uptempo jigs and reels; predictably, couples break out of the ceili lines and form sets; predictably, the hoodlum twin sons of one of the parish's minor gossips spike the punch; predictably, Quinn's character gets drunk inadvertently and there's a painful and disastrous denouement.

But that scene, in its depiction of Irish rural music culture in the period after the Dance Halls Acts, in its use of real players who are allowed to really play in the way that ceili bands really did in the '30s, in its understanding of the rare beacon of warmth, contact, and bodily pleasure that music and dance permitted, is probably the truest expression of the period's music culture in any Hollywood film. Of all the films mentioned in this article, this is probably the one most of use to traditional musicians, though it ain't fun.

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Titanic

Okay, this is the one that made me want to write the article in the first place. After manfully resisting the damned thing for more than two years, even constantly hearing things on gigs like "Oh, that's just the music from Titanic " or "Can't you play something like what they played in Titanic " ad nauseum, and rants about the caliber of the music from musicians, I finally gave in. I stumbled across the thing while channel- surfing one night, and made myself sit through it until the famous "hooley" scene, where Leo DiCaprio's character (and where the hell did they decide he fit the image of a young Irishman?) sneaks Kate Winslet's society debutante away from her decadent snooty peers and into the steerage, where there's an impromptu ceili dance going on.

I'll leave it to dance people to comment on the improvised hopping-about that James Cameron seems to think people will accept as "Irish dance," and focus on the music. The band featured is a nondescript Irish pub band the producers heard playing in a Santa Monica bar, happening upon them at a moment when the band themselves admit they were so drunk that one side of the stage was playing one part of the tune and the other side was playing another.

The performance is anachronistic in instrumentation, repertoire, and execution, the director insisted the band get drunk before recording, and the piper quit immediately afterwards in protest at the musical results. Since the film came out, the band's had great success with tours and recordings, in almost every case touting themselves as "the band from Titanic ." I can't blame the band: it's not their fault that they're sort of mediocre, or that an incredible marketing opportunity fell into their laps and they ran with it. See the film if (a) you love Celine Dion or Leo DiCaprio, (b) you have an incredible tolerance for kitsch, or (c) you can distance yourself enough to laugh your way through the whole thing. But with the other films mentioned above, and various documentaries (to be described in another article), there's no real reason to subject yourself to it.

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The Field

This one's sort of depressing. The story revolves around questions like "who owns the land, those who paid for it with cash or those who spent their lives working it?" and "what happens to an Irishman who moves to America and forgets the land?" and stuff like that. Richard Harris chews the scenery, Tom Berenger plays the slick American, there's a stereotypical scene with a tinker girl scaring off the men by asking them to dance, and nothing matters and what if it did. There's music being played in the village dance scene in the parish hall, but the film-makers really haven't a clue about what either music or dancing meant to people in the rural setting. Give it a miss.

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Ride with the Devil

Haven't had a chance to see this film, a wedding scene in which features a dream pre-Civil War string band including Roger Landes, John Whelan, Jeff Dover, Zan McLeod, and others. But if what the boys have to say about the filming is true, then once again the Hollywood guys got it wrong: stumbling around trying to figure out just what the wedding scene was going to be about, while off in the woods the musicians were improvising together an arrangement of the Irish tune "Miss Maguire," which became "Hop High Ladies," and in so doing, as Chipper Thompson said, "putting it together the way it actually happened," with Irish, Scots, and English tunes colliding with African-American and Scandinavian emigrant musics on the frontier to yield the synthesis we know as "American music." I met these film guys in Weston in July 98; it wouldn't surprise me if they couldn't recognize some actual musical creativity if it came up and kicked 'em right in their Rodeo Drive attitudes.

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There are several other films various friends and databases have cited as containing traditional music, including "Dance Lexie Dance," "Taxi Mauve," "Lair of the White Worm," "Hear My Song," and "Traveller" (with Davey Spillane as a tinker piper) among others. But the ones above are the ones you can find, good, bad, or indifferent.