DIR: Konrad Begg • WRI: Fiona Graham, Ford Kiernan • PRO: Howard Gibbins, Fiona Grahan, Ford Kiernan, John McDonnell, Mairi McLellan, Angela Murray • Ed: Scott Flyer • DOP: Duncan Telford • DES: Francis Taffe. Mus: Ultan Conlon, Jim McKee • Cast: Sean Maguire, Lorna Anderson, Patrick Bergin, James Cosmo, Kevin Ryan, Ford Kiernan, Ross McMahon
Set in Galway, Songs for Amy follows Sean O’Malley (Maguire), a struggling Irish musician from a band called Lost and Sound, who writes an album dedicated to his ex-fiancée and great love, Amy (Anderson) after their relationship ends. Intercut with the recording and performing of these songs are roughly chronological scenes from Sean’s life, from the beginning of his relationship with Amy, to an outrageously bacchanalian stag night, to his life in the aftermath of his failed nuptials, and his unexpected promotion to hotel manager after a sudden death in his family.
This second-act diversion is sorely needed, but is not as well-managed as it may have been. Although it’s well-structured and builds towards its conclusion nicely, it becomes a bit thematically burdened, and almost entirely from Sean’s perspective, leaving little room to expand on other characters or enrich existing strands. (The lack of development of Amy herself, for example, is disappointing: we are given no reason to really like or care about her, other than the fact that Sean likes and cares about her.) There’s an issue of paternity woven into Sean’s already emotionally-burdened narrative, which is so flippantly resolved as to feel almost completely unnecessary. It’s curious too that a man who spends the entire duration of this film working on songs about his ex has no creative energy to expend on not knowing his real father, or mourning his dead sister.
The link to Galway is foregrounded twice in the film, with the same voiceover from Sean bookending the film, at two tonally-opposed moments, claiming that ‘Galway is a special place,’ a musical place, as it is where he grew up and where he met Amy. Shots of Sean lingering before Galway Bay, with and without Amy, drive it home as a meditative place of contemplation, somehow ‘expressing the inexpressible,’ in the words of Adolus Huxley from the film’s title card.
For yes, Songs for Amy opens with a quote from Huxley: ‘After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ The realization of this in the film could be handled a little better. While the idea that Sean is much more articulate and to-the-point in his songwriting than without music is an appealing one, it often feels like a bit of a crutch for the film, relying too often on minor chords and bluntly on-the-nose lyrics to emotionally anchor the film. The music in the film is pleasant enough, but bland, lovelorn acoustic-guitar driven ballads with no real breakout song emerging in the style of Falling Slowly from Once, for example.
The tone of this film is also rather confused: It’s hard to reconcile strange scenes of dancing gypsies and orgiastic scenes at Sean’s stag party – during which hard-living blues band Alabama 3, playing themselves, serve up a cocktail of poitin, absinthe and hand sanitizer while snorting cocaine off naked groupies – with the film’s core theme of a sensitive, jilted musician questioning the whys and wherefores of his life.
Director Konrad Begg has described the film not as a rom-com or a drama but as a ‘darkly comedic love story’, its humour deriving from ‘misfortune and struggle,’ and this is where the film lands the most blows, due in no small part to its broadly-talented cast. A scene-stealing taxi driver, tasked with driving the band from Limerick to Galway on the proverbial ‘morning after’, whereas a clichéd but enjoyable scene of Sean drunk-dialling Amy to play her his songs is perfectly pitched by Maguire. Similarly, the members of Sean’s band have a believable, easy chemistry, even if their dialogue feels a little unnatural and forced by times; and Kevin Ryan does his best with the one-dimensional guylinered lothario J.J. Fitzgerald, a world famous rock star and rival for Amy’s affections.
There is a point in Songs for Amy when Sean informs his bandmates that they’re not going to release the album they’re working on to the general public because it is just for Amy. This attitude is rightly ridiculed by the rest of the band and unfortunately highlights one of the key issues with the film – it’s too individually-focused, Sean too fixated on Amy, the film too fixated on Sean, meaning it can be hard to care about what other people might want, or feel they’ve been promised by investing time and effort into such a venture. Ultimately, the tight structure and hard-working cast of Songs for Amy carry the film for as long as they can, but the film’s narrow focus, not to mention its schitzophrenic tone, jars with any moments of meaningful romance its premise may have promised.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Songs for Amy is released on 2nd May 2014