The Plot: Fergus O’Farrell had a knack for singing great songs. In his teenage years, he formed school band Interference. In later years, the band had some moderate success with their first album. Over time though, his muscular dystrophy deteriorated to the point where he had to perform in a wheelchair. And yet the voice remained authentic, attracting the admiration of one Glen Hansard. Having retired from the Dublin music scene in the late 1990s, O’Farrell was still struggling to get that second album finished. However, with Hansard’s help the album is finally coming to fruition…
The Verdict: New Irish music documentary BreakingOut begins, of all places, in a dark Cork ditch in which a man has found himself. Along comes fellow Cork resident Jeremy Irons to encourage him to get up and finish the work that he started so long ago. That man is Fergus O’Farrell, the hugely talented frontman for the late 1980s Irish band Interference. This observational documentary charts his career highs and lows, along with a healthy dose of humour from family, friends and fellow musicians including super-fan Glen Hansard. The film won the Best Irish Documentary award at last year’s Galway Film Fleadh and in some respects it’s not hard to see why. It’s a cosy, intimate portrait of a man overcoming his physical disability and not letting it overwhelm his talent and passion for singing.
O’Farrell shouldn’t have made it that far though, at least according to a doctor who bluntly told him that he wouldn’t live past 18 due to muscular dystrophy. The fact that he did is testament to his inner strength of character and the strong relationship with his force of nature wife Li, who he fondly describes as a controlled nuclear explosion. Through thick and thin, she supported him as his condition weakened him to the point of being bed-ridden. First-time producer/director Michael McCormack’s film is a celebration of O’Farrell’s life, who left this world too early at the age of just 48. Shot over the course of 10 years, a long time even for the fragmented nature of feature documentaries, BreakingOut follows O’Farrell from having his song Gold featured in the Oscar-winning Once to performing for the stage version in Radio City Music Hall. Then Hansard helps him to complete the second album in his Cork home, gently blowing air from a tube into O’Farrell’s ailing lungs in between lines of a song. It’s that attention to detail and fondness for the man that impresses.
McCormack also demonstrates the joy of music as an expression of the soul. O’Farrell certainly had soul too, with his vocal range hitting the kind of notes for a song to become an evocative, emotional experience. Much like the man himself, McCormack’s direction is laid-back and unhurried. The focus is more on incident and admiration, rather than a probing character study of a man who defied the odds. That’s fine for what it is and has the hallmarks of safe direction from a first timer. Had McCormack been a bit braver though, he could have delved into O’Farrell’s struggle with muscular dystrophy in more detail and interweave it with the passion for music for a fuller picture of his subject. As it stands though, BreakingOut is a competently-made and heartfelt documentary that invites you into the colourful life of a musician you may or may not have heard of. It’s the worth the price of admission alone to watch O’Farrell’s interactions with Li. It becomes apparent that’s she’s the one who kept him going all those years as he made beautiful music.