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Banding Together

Brassed Off
Sophie Baker

And the Band Played On: Ewan McGregor (left), Tara Fitzgerald and Pete Postlethwaite try to keep their spirits up with music in hard times.

Music and mining are matched
in British 'Brassed Off'

By Richard von Busack

AS USUAL, the British have a phrase for it. The process of merging and purging that has left people unemployed in the U.S. has also been taking place in England. There, where state industries were sold off by Baroness Thatcher, the newly unemployed were declared "redundant." The "redundancy" of union coal workers in northern England's Yorkshire spawned much protest and the slogan "Coal Not Dole" ("the dole" meaning welfare). Politicians justified the closings by citing England's commitment to a nuclear-powered future; in the meantime, cheap coal is now being imported from Poland.

This sad situation is the subject of Brassed Off (another Britishism, meaning "pissed off"), a comic tragedy by director/writer Mark Herman. For the most part, the film has the offhanded low-key wit of an Ealing/Alec Guinness romp. Unfortunately, it slips at the finish, turning dead earnest, and then mawkish, to remind us that this is, after all, a real-life tragedy. As if all of us potentially redundant in the audience could forget that problem.

Pete Postlethwaite stars as the captain of a sinking ship. Danny, the conductor of the local brass band for the Grimley Colliery, is so devoted to the group that he's trying not to register the bad news that the government is considering closing the mine.

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Richard von Buscak interviews Pete Postlethwaite,
star of this new British comedy.

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Danny's son, Phil (Stephen Tompkinson), has a broken trombone, a mess of children and bills, and a criminal record. The sudden appearance in Grimley of the lovely Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) seems like some small consolation for the impending troubles; she's the grandchild of an ex-member of the band, andshe's a fine fluegelhornist. Gloria's youth and beauty inspire the band to hang together during the negotiations over the fate of the mine and to try for the nationwide brass-band contest, whose first prize is a trip to London and a performance at Royal Albert Hall.

As Danny sickens and goes to the hospital with black lung--I'm not giving anything away; when a character in a mining movie starts coughing, it can mean but one thing--Phil begins to carry the story, even more than Ewan McGregor and Fitzgerald in the romantic subplot. (This is the slow part of the show, despite Fitzgerald's almost outlandish beauty.)

Phil, abandoned by his wife and no longer a full-time miner, becomes an inept full-time birthday-party clown called "Mr. Chuckles." As the crisis mounts, Phil turns into a crying clown--never an edifying spectacle. The switch in mood from drama to melodrama mirrors the film's direct grab for the audience's heart--and just when Brassed Off had been making its point so well.

John Sayles' last shot in Matewan--of a miner staring straight at us--was smart, because it made a point: even if miners win a labor struggle, what they also win is a life in a coal mine. Equally smart is Herman's use of one vanishing culture--public brass-band playing--as a metaphor for another--coal mining. The parallel between the historic band and the historic way of life is strengthened through highly intelligent use of montage over the scenes of protest, election and the band hitting the road. Brassed Off's most exhilarating moment is a rousingly edited performance of the William Tell Overture.

Still, in the end, Danny's speech to the band's audience is grandstanding; Brassed Off addresses us as if we were a public meeting. Despite this poor finish, I'm looking forward to the next Herman film; I'm hope that he can bring off another smart political comedy without gilding (or, rather, brassing) the lily.


Brassed Off (R; 107 min.), directed and written by Mark Herman, photographed by Andy Collins and starring Pete Postlethwaite and Tara Fitzgerald.

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From the May 29-June 4, 1997 issue of Metro

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