Stephen Burke tips his hi-hat to Nick Kelly’s debut feature film, The Drummer And The Keeper, which screened at the the 2017 Galway Film Fleadh.
Having sold out a week before its Friday evening screening at the 2017 Galway Film Fleadh, it’s fair to say there was both excitement and expectation in the Town Hall Theatre ahead of the world premiere of Nick Kelly’s debut feature film – The Drummer And The Keeper. Not too long ago, it seemed that films exploring mental health issues were few and far between. Over the past few years though, they’ve almost become dangerously in vogue.
While it is, of course, important that these films are being made, they’re not of great value if the issues are not tackled accurately and appropriately. Not an easy thing to do. It’s even more difficult to make a film that handles the subject matter truthfully and sensitively while also being entertaining and containing moments of genuine humour. It’s a huge credit to Nick Kelly that The Drummer And The Keeper manages to do all of this successfully. The judges at the Fleadh seemed to think so too as the film scooped the award for Best Irish First Feature.
The main publicity photo released in advance of this screening was a striking image of a young man walking away from a burning vehicle. The film itself opens on an image which is just as striking – a close-up of the bare posterior of that same character. The character in question is Gabriel (played by Dermot Murphy), a 24 year-old bipolar rock drummer living in Dublin. He’s also experiencing psychotic and delusional episodes. When we first meet Gabriel, he is setting fire to a sofa on a beach sans his trousers. Setting fire to things is one of the many out-of-control activities that Gabriel seems to engage in when going through a manic period. We soon learn that his mother also suffered from the same condition and eventually took her own life. Gabriel’s only family of note is his sister Alice (Aoibhinn McGinnity). She’s worried that his life is spiraling out of control. His band mates Toss and Pearse (Peter Coonan and Charlie Kelly) do show a degree of concern regarding Gabriel’s well-being but they seem to be more anxious to ensure that his behavior doesn’t derail any opportunities the band may have at hitting the big time.
While Toss’ advice to “cut back on the booze and spliff” seems like a good starting point, Gabriel requires more stringent treatment. This is despite his insistence that “rock and roll is supposed to be out of control”. Medication is the order of the day and to combat the strong fatigue, which accompanies it as a side effect, Gabriel is instructed to partake in regular exercise and sent along to participate in a weekly game of football with a mixed ability group. This is where he encounters the goalkeeping-obsessed Christopher (Jacob McCarthy), a 17 year old with Asperger’s syndrome who is living in institutionalized accommodation.
After a rocky beginning, it’s not long before Christopher is showing up at Gabriel’s band’s gigs and slowly but surely a friendship and understanding develops between them. They may not have much in common but the mental health issues that each of them deal with allow them to identify and bond with one another more than either would have expected. As Kelly noted in the post screening Q & A – “When you have a moment of crisis, the people who are helpful to you are usually completely not the people who you thought were supposed to be helpful”.
With this type of film, it’s always going to be of the utmost importance that the audience finds the relationship between Gabriel and Christopher to be believable. Their friendship is the core of The Drummer and The Keeper. Due to an impressively crafted script (also written by director Kelly), the authenticity of this relationship never wavers or becomes forced. According to Kelly, a great deal of research into both conditions was carried out (all the extras featuring in scenes at the institute Christopher resides in are actually people who have autism) and this can be seen on the screen, both when Gabriel and Christopher interact with each other and with supporting characters. In the post-screening Q & A, there were several comments from mental health workers praising the film for its realistic depiction of both Bipolar disorder and Asperger’s. While Kelly was no doubt proud of the standing ovation the film received, comments like this may have meant even more to him.
Following the screening, Kelly explained that the casting process of the film took a long time. It’s unclear whether or not he was including the casting of Murphy and McCarthy in that statement. Both of them were inspired choices though. While Murphy and McCarthy have credits prior to this, they are still fresh faces on a cinema screen and The Drummer And The Keeper boasts what feel like star making turns from each of them. Both actors deserve all the plaudits they will undoubtedly get. Murphy is especially impressive and his Gabriel emotes as powerfully in the character’s quieter and more introspective moments as in his more explosive one’s. Little room is left to develop supporting characters and this is very much a film about the drummer and the keeper of the title. However, Gabriel and Christopher are such well written characters that few viewers are likely to complain that the central focus consistently remains on them.
Kelly’s directorial ability is extremely confident and one would be very hard-pressed to guess that this is his first feature. It certainly won’t be his last. There are a few parts of the film, particularly near the end, where it feels like credibility is being stretched but by then viewers are likely to be too engaged and invested in the characters to be put off. This is an impressive, moving and often funny debut feature that deserves to find a wide audience. As Kelly said afterwards, “Even if you aren’t currently mentally ill, I think, hopefully there’s something in it for you”. Recommended – An Irish film to be proud of.
The Drummer and The Keeper screened on Friday, 14th July as part of the 2017 Galway Film Fleadh (11 – 16 July).