Far from a drag
TRUE, THIS documentary on the Alternative Miss World does not demand to be seen on the world’s biggest screen. Though elegantly composed and punctuated with pretty animations, the picturefilm is a small thing that would work perfectly well on TV.
That grumpy proviso noted, we urge anyone even vaguely interested in English subcultures of the late 20th century to make their way to this joyful, punky film. The British Guide to Showing Off relates how Andrew Logan, a sculptor from a moneyed background, devised the Alternative Miss World in 1972 and – despite occasional solicitor’s letters from the real Miss World – has somehow kept the jamboree breathing for the succeeding four decades.
A superficial definition would cast AMW (as it is abbreviated) as a competition for drag artists. In truth it’s much more than that. We watch delighted as a host of nascent anti-celebrities – Derek Jarman, Grayson Perry, John Maybury – attempt to divert the judges with unimaginably elaborate costumes.
Moving from the dying days of swinging London through punk and on to the Blitz kids and the Aids years, the film offers a potted history of one corner of the British underground. It’s a happy place, though it offers a slightly melancholy payoff. Whereas the early contestants were genuinely on the fringes of society, the outrageous camp that AMW celebrates now seems part of the mainstream. (Swatch sponsored a recent event.) The 2009 event shown here seems awfully good fun, but even the angriest curmudgeon would struggle to view it with disgust or anxiety.
Oh well. There are downsides to everything, even inclusiveness. Enjoy the amusing contributions in this likable film and pay attention to the huge beast sitting beside Brian Eno. We have our cinematic cat of the year. MERYL STREEP brings violins. Antonio Banderas brings ballroom dancing. The underprivileged school enlivened by a music programme is a well-worn staple of contemporary cinema. By now, we’re so accustomed to the beats of the inspiring teacher drama that we’re seldom surprised when the plucky, downtrodden youngsters of the projects beat the legacy brats of Snootington Academy in the final reel.
The great pity of the subgenre is that most of the films involved (Take the Lead, Music of the Heart, etc) are inspired by real people working against real odds. Happily, Frank Berry’s stirring documentary portrait of the Ballymun Music Programme never allows the narrative trajectory to get in the way of the people and place involved.
Ballymun, Dublin’s original high-rise suburb, is introduced in a flurry from the archives. By the time we meet Ron Cooney, the music teacher at the heart of the film and the community-based ensemble, the towers have been mostly demolished and the Ballymun of tabloid headlines has eclipsed the modernist aspirations behind the architecture.
Folk songs and urban legends speak of heroin use, horses in the elevator and critical levels of economic deprivation. “Every time the news wanted to show deprivation,” notes the director, “they showed Ballymun.”
But there is another Ballymun, a place governed by a sturdy sense of community and identity. Former residents and locals, including Fr Peter Mcverry and Glen Hansard, provide testimony to its existence. In the Ballymun they know, the Ballymun Music Programme is emblematic of a best-foot-forward philosophy and locals pulling together against the tide.
It’s hardly deprivation: in a better Ireland, every locale would have a Ron Cooney at their disposal, and they, like Cooney, could call on people such as composer Daragh O’toole and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
The primary goal for the duration of Berry’s film is to record an EP featuring what Ron Cooney calls a “world class” collection of music. Ultimately, it’s all down to the students, represented here by lively youngsters Tara O’brien, Darren Scully andwayne Beatty.
This triumvirate provide an eloquent expression of what music can do for a community, long before the punch-the-air denouement.