Brian Ó Tiomáin reviews Michael McCormack’s documentary on Fergus O’Farrell, the charismatic voice of Interference, one of the most influential bands on the Irish music scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Breaking Out was a deserving winner of Best Irish Documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2019. The film screened to a full house at the Fleadh, in an era when that meant every seat in the cinema was occupied.
Filmed over a period of 10 years by Michael McCormack, Breaking Out was clearly a labour of love. This debut feature was a long time coming, but it has been worth the wait. Rich in musical and emotional content, the film deftly weaves old footage, photographs and interviews with more recent material.
Breaking Out is the story of Fergus O’Farrell, a musical artist who just happened to have a disability. At the age of 8, he was given a terminal diagnosis of Muscular Dystrophy. His parents were told that Fergus would be in a wheelchair by 12 and that he would not survive beyond 18.
There are some engaging home video moments of Fergus in his early years with his parents and sisters. These clips are nicely complemented by interviews with family describing life prior to and after the diagnosis.
As predicted, Fergus was in a wheelchair by the age of 12. But he lived beyond 18. His disability did not define him or prevent him living a very full life on his terms. It may be that his terminal diagnosis provided an impetus to propel him onto his own singular musical journey, in spite of huge physical challenges.
The film follows Ferugus’s initial forays into music and discovering what would become his life’s passion. It then moves on to his involvement in setting up the band Interference while Fergus was at Clongowes Wood secondary school. There is some vibrant footage of some of the school gigs where we can see an early indication of Fergus’s vocal talent and his stage presence as a performer.
After leaving school, the band took up residence in the old Winstanley warehouse in Dublin (which became Mother Redcaps). The venue became a haven for many other bands including the Hothouse Flowers and the Black Velvet Band. Interference received some very positive reviews and seemed to be on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Fergus was gifted. He had a wonderful singing voice which could soar to great emotional heights and depths, in an unpretentious delivery. It could be visceral. He was also an accomplished guitarist and piano player. And he was an exceptionally talented composer. He composed the song “Gold” which featured in the film and stage musical “Once”. Indeed, when Once won eight Tony awards in 2012, “Gold” was the song which featured at the awards ceremony.
The Film Once is of course synonymous with Glen Hansard, who features throughout the film as a close friend of Fergus for many years. That friendship was forged initially in a mutual love for the music despite the two coming from very different backgrounds. Glen Hansard acknowledges that Fergus O’Farrell was an inspiration to him, musically and in other ways.
There are very moving scenes involving Hansard and O’Farrell from more recent times when the Muscular Dystrophy has clearly reduced Fergus’s physical capacity to function. Despite his progressive deterioration, Fergus has not given up on the goal of a second album. It is touching to see Hansard in particular striving to help Fergus achieve this ambition against great odds as he moves onto the final stage of his life’s journey.
The film intercuts from the recording scenes to mundane daily life where he gets glimpses of Fergus’s daily struggle to stay alive and wonder how it could be possible for him to record an album. Jeremy Irons pops in for a cameo at this stage in a scene that would hardly be credible if it were written as fiction.
An integral part of this section of the film is the story of Fergus and the woman who became the love of his life, after an initial encounter that was less than promising.
During his life’s journey, Fergus generously helped and inspired many others, notably through the provision of rehearsing and studio facilities to other bands. The Winstanley warehouse provided a base where others from the vibrant musical community in Dublin in the 1980’s and 1990s could gather.
Breaking Out, the story of Fergus O’Farrell, is a truly inspiring and gut-wrenching film that deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Breaking Out screens on 26th September 2021 as part of the IFI Documentary Film Festival