Just when you begin to suspect that intelligence, wit and charm have vanished from the movies under the haunches of full-grown dogs like For the Boys and Shining Through, a sleeper pops up to restore your faith. Hear My Song, an Anglo-Irish comedy made on a shoestring, features elements of the fairy tale, the backstage farce, and the romantic tearjerker, but it is really sui generis. It nimbly pokes fun at these genres even as it embraces them, and it unabashedly glories in both the tug of song and the power of love.
Written by Englishman Peter Chelsom (who also directs) and Irishman Adrian Dunbar (who also plays a leading role), Song is based on events from the life of a gifted Irish tenor named Josef Locke, a life that has, understandably, taken on a few encrustations of myth.
Ironically, Locke enjoyed his greatest popularity back in the 1950s in the faded music halls of down-at-the-heels British cities like Birmingham and Blackpool - places not always so hospitable to Irishmen or Irish art. At his peak, though, the singer had to flee home to the Emerald Isle, lest the British taxman bring him down for evasion.
Thus did a cult rise around the exiled tenor ("When Jo sang, women would weep," one yearning soul remembers), and thus did at least one Locke imposter - billing himself as "Mr. X: Is he or isn't he?" - emerge to exercise his own slightly inferior vocal cords and cash in on the legend. Rumor also held that Locke left a few broken hearts behind in Blighty.
This makes for rich grist, of course, and it's difficult to imagine a more buoyant movie than the one Chelsom, age 35 and a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, gives us in his directorial debut.
For one thing, Chelsom parcels out the tale in three appealing settings - the slightly tacky Liverpudlian night club, Heartly's, where an unlucky impresario named Mickey O'Neill (Dunbar) first runs afoul of Mr. X's scam and gets punched up by an irate fat lady for his trouble; the misty, verdant hills of western Ireland, where Mickey seeks to redeem himself by finding and retrieving the real Jo Locke 25 years after his disappearance; and the derelict opera house, all peeling paint and pigeon dung, where the prodigal son, big as a house now, performs his inevitable swan song... while the police wait in the wings.
Hear My Song also has its share of romantic entanglements - Locke returns to England not just because he can't resist the lure of his audience but because his lady love (Shirley-Anne Field) still dwells there - but these seem less primal than the mysteries of song itself. While it's the voice of one Vernon Midgley you hear on the soundtrack, it's the extraordinary American actor Ned Beatty (much admired as victim, lord, and sidekick in Deliverance, Network, and Superman) who portrays the enigmatic Locke with such strength and grace. What emerges, in the end, is the portrait of a divided soul, of a man who can no longer deny his own deepest instincts. The caged bird must sing, yes, and if a deus ex machina suddenly materializes to deliver him from official harm, so much the better for him and for the tenor, if you will, of this most cunning comedy.
On the gently poetic edges of the film, meanwhile, witness some delightful details - the third-rate croonings of a trouper who bills himself as "Franc Cinatra" (and has the rotten tomato stains to prove it), the growing confidence with which Jo Locke tunes up his famous pipes midway across the Irish Sea, the unquenchable pluck of Mickey's alienated fiancee, Nancy (Tara Fitzgerald), the pluck of Mick himself.
If Hear My Song veers now and then into sheer sentiment - the colorful Irish rustics around Jo Locke are just a bit too colorful and rustic, for example - director Chelsom soon draws his film back into line with playful wit and clear-eyed charm. Only the ogres crouched in the balcony will be able to resist Josef Locke's heavenly finale.
HEAR MY SONG
Screenplay by Peter Chelsom and Adrian Dunbar, directed by Peter Chelsom. With Ned Beatty, Adrian Dunbar, Shirley-Anne Field, and Tara Fitzgerald.