St. Patrick’s Day being nigh, we have an Irish tale to tell and show: Once upon a time, there was a beloved Irish tenor named Josef Locke, who gained fame and fortune in the British Isles in the 1940s and 50s.
He was born Joseph McLaughlin, the son of a butcher and cattle dealer. As a lad, he sang in Bogside churches and aspired to operatic roles. Those being out of reach to a teenager, he instead joined the Irish Guards of the British Army and served in Palestine. Several years later, he returned to Northern Ireland, enlisted in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and resumed singing, calling himself “The Singing Bobby.” An even more famous Irish tenor, John McCormack, advised him to forget about opera to focus on traditional songs and music hall fare. Then, because a theater impresario believed the McLaughlin name was too long to fit on a billboard, he shortened it to Josef Locke. And began his climb to stardom.
His most famous number was “Hear My Song, Violetta.” Minus the Violetta, “Hear My Song” is the charming, rollicking movie that will be screened downstairs at the library at 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 18.
The film is loosely based on the story of the real Josef Locke, who in 1958 became a tax refugee to the west of Ireland after British tax authorities decided he owed them a heap of money. As news reports put it at the time, Locke “left behind a beauty queen, a Jaguar sports car and a pedigree Dalmatian, all of them pining.”
The action begins at Heartly’s, a run-down nightclub that caters to Liverpool’s Irish community. The place is on the brink of bankruptcy, and the manager — Irish-born Micky (Adrian Dunbar) — is desperate to keep it afloat. Indeed, he’ll try anything — including booking Franc Cinatra, a singer whose only resemblance to Frank Sinatra is the fedora he wears on stage. When that ploy fails, Micky bets his all on “Mr. X” — ostensibly Josef Locke coming out of hiding to perform for a week.
The news travels fast; ticket sales soar. Micky’s luck is looking up. There’s only one hitch: when mystery man arrives, the people who’d know best — the constable who ran Locke out of England and the beauty queen Locke left behind — quickly declare Mr. X an imposter.
Outraged patrons demand their money back; the club’s owners take Micky’s keys away. To make matters worse, Cathleen (Shirley Anne Field), the beauty queen who unmasks Mr. X, is the mother of Micky’s girlfriend, Nancy (Tara Fitzgerald).
Defiant in defeat, Micky vows to go to Ireland, find the real Josef Locke and persuade him to risk jail in order to help Micky win back Tara’s heart.
What follows is equal parts blarney, nostalgia, sly wit and a scenic tour of rural Ireland. The surprise is that it matters whether Micky will succeed. That’s the deft touch of director Peter Chelson, and the robust acting of Ned Beatty, who plays Locke.
This is the first feature film for Chelson, who co-wrote the script with Adrian Dunbar. It’s clearly a labor of love for all involved. As Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, “Hear My Song” has the “blithe, fanciful magic that can’t be achieved through skill alone.” Indeed, in its way, it is the apotheosis of the “small film” — one that, knowing its characters are flawed, cares all the more about them and encourages us to care as well. Particularly as we see Micky become more than a scheming hustler and Locke someone who truly loved his beauty queen and is determined never to lose her again.
“Hear My Song” runs 1 hour, 44 minutes. Come see it March 18. Bring a pal. You’ll both go home singing.