Cinema Review: Songs For Amy

m-songs-for-amy

 

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.

 

Stacy Grouden

16 (See IFCO for details)
103 mins

Songs for Amy  is released on 2nd May 2014

Songs for Amy  – Official Website

 

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Interview: Konrad Begg, director of ‘Songs for Amy’

Seven Songs for Amy

 

Songs for Amy is a ‘darkly comedic love story’, inspired by the music scene of the West of Ireland. Set against the stunning background of Galway, the story follows musician Sean O ‘Malley (Sean Maguire), as he writes an album for Amy (Lorna Anderson) – the fiancée he jilted at the altar – in the hope of redeeming himself. Along the way he finds himself involved in various uncompromising situations, no thanks to his eccentric band members.

Film Ireland caught up with the film’s director, Konrad Begg, ahead of the film’s release in Irish cinemas.

 

How did you originally get involved in the project?

I was looking for scripts to make a short film, I had met with quite a few people and was thinking about a few projects between my day job directing for the BBC. Meantime my old friend Fiona [Graham] was working on a script and she sent me it, I read it and I just thought there was something special about it.

 

I read that you were working on the film for three years.

I suppose before pre-production I spent just under two years on it between my other work. Fiona and I worked together on the story and casting, we worked with the musicians and travelled around scouting and researching. It was a lot of fun.

 

You’ve had a successful career as a television director in the UK, what made you decide to move into film?

Well I actually started out making a short film then I wanted to make more but my financial situation drove me into television.  I’ve been lucky enough to make some really creative stuff and in particular I loved making drama documentaries, but I was often frustrated by the lack of creative freedom that many of the shows I worked on allowed. At the end of the day I always knew I wanted to make a feature, it was only a matter of time.

 

And what challenges did you face?

Well not many. I had made some pretty big budget TV and commercials with some very talented people; so surrounding myself with the right people was important. Maintaining conviction is so important as a director especially when you’re a first timer like me. I guess the biggest challenge is that a feature is a marathon, not a sprint.

 

You worked with some great actors on the film, in particular Patrick Bergin and James Cosmo – how was that and what did they bring to the project?

James and Patrick are both wonderfully talented guys who would really lift the performances around them, we were very lucky to have them on board. I think Patrick embodied the spirit of the ageing troubadour and his character is key to the strength of our third act. James embodies the fearful Scottish father-in-law; his physicality and his presence are fantastic. I’m happy to say we had a really great cast on Songs. I was very adamant that we had a two-week rehearsal period, which I think was key to the dynamic of the band. Sean [Maguire] for me really nailed it. He is an incredibly hard-working actor and just poured everything he had into the part.

 

The film begins with the Aldous Huxley quote, ‘After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ Can you tell us why you chose to open the film with this?

The quote is from Music at Night [1931 collection of essays] and it really resonates with me; it sums up how I feel about music and creativity. So I decided to put this quote from it at the top of the film very early on as more of a statement of intent for myself and for the character Sean.

 

It’s interesting how Sean is able to express his emotions for Amy through song; and that when he actually gets the chance to tell her how he feels, words fail him.

Many musicians aren’t great at expressing themselves in conversation, yet when they play people listen and understand. I wanted Sean to have this trait; I wanted the emphasis to be on his music both as a cathartic thing for himself but also a message from him to Amy. No one is saying that Sean is Bob Dylan or Richard Thompson, and his songs certainly won’t change the world, he’s just a heartbroken man pouring his heart out.

 

There is this sense of heroic failure to the film.

I think it’s one of my favourite comic devices. We didn’t want the band or Sean to be conventionally heroic, (though they are drawn at times to vaguely heroic behaviour). They are just ordinary folk making their way through life. There are very few true heroes in real life but many noble strugglers.

 

You catch the beauty of Galway in the film and there’s a real sense of place – were you familiar with Galway before the film?

The West of Ireland really is one of my favourite places on earth and I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to shoot there. I had spent time in and around Galway, Kinvara and County Clare. I was always struck with the skies and the changing light, the weather systems off the Atlantic and the feel of being on the edge of something.

 

The film is driven by the music and you’ve got some wonderful musicians involved: Ultan Conlon, Jim McKee – who pops up in a brief cameo as a busker – and Alabama 3 of course, who actually play a major role in the film. How did they all get involved?

Yes, Jim and Ultan kind of epitomise the character of the place. When we all sat around and discussed the script and the sentiments and themes they just kind understood. So it was a great process. Alabama 3 on the other hand were a very fortuitous find. Fiona and I were struggling with casting a well known band within the film. Fiona was out one night in Galway and met them. The next day she called me and said I needed to check them out as she thought they would be perfect. She was right. They were such great fun and I loved working with them. Any group of actors would struggle to pull off what they do!

 

The film has been described as a ‘darkly comedic love story’.

Myself and Fiona didn’t want the film ever to be a rom-com, we wanted it to have dark humour, we wanted the laughs to come mainly from misfortune and struggle … and Declan! [Ross Mac Mahon’s character].  We both love the film In Bruges and in particular the way that the story weaves a clever path between very dark content and hilarious sometimes slapstick comedy. If we have achieved a modicum of this I’m happy.

 

 

Songs for Amy is released in selected IMC Cinemas on 2nd May.

 

 

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