Far from a drag

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews -

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.

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