Room for Romeo Brass
Listening closely to how pre-existing pop songs are used in films is always a fascinating business. Sometimes it's quite a comic business, too, in ways that I suspect are not entirely foreseen by filmmakers.
When it's decided that a particular song will go well with part of a film, it's often a very loose, baggy fit: maybe it's the feel of the song, or just some repeated catch phrase in it, or an association the song has with an era or a particular subculture.
Then we, the audience, come along – and we might know the lyrics or the story in the song very well or we might have a line on some arcane interpretation of what the song's really all about. And so, perhaps we experience a sudden jolt when we hear it in the picture theatre, thinking: what has the story of this song got to do with the story of this film?
There are a lot of pop songs in the British movie A Room for Romeo Brass. Many are Brit-pop songs of a certain era, beloved of a certain kind of audience: songs by Billy Bragg, for example. The movie starts with that great ska tune "A Message to You, Rudy" by The Specials, and it ends with a rather grim song about wartime by Ian Brown. Both these songs have only a tangential relation, lyric-wise, to the characters and the plot of the film.
The first song is about somebody warning a friend to "think of the future" and "act straight" so as to avoid, maybe, delinquency and jail. The wartime song is about watching your best friend being killed in battle. The fit of these songs with the film is loose, but their mood is right, and so are their basic hooks and associations.
A Room for Romeo Brass is about friendship between two young boys, Romeo (Andrew Shim) and Gavin (Ben Marshall); it's about the possibility of the future working out badly, or scarily for these kids; and, in a certain way, it's a film about a kind of war – a daily, occasionally violent struggle on the domestic front.
This is the second feature by Shane Meadows, who made TwentyFourSeven (1997). He's already a very confident filmmaker, with a tremendous rapport with his actors, and an immediate, unfussy but crisp style. At the start of the movie, everyone in it is a lovable eccentric, and incidents play out as gags about everyday, social humiliation, embarrassment, and general larking around.
Gradually, darker hints are introduced – particularly around an older male friend of the two boys, Morrell (Paddy Considine), a weird guy whose nuttiness hides a wildly unpredictable edge. It's this guy who manages to drive a wedge between the boys, who must then try muddling on without each other for a while – with not great results for them.
Like many British films of recent years – such as Naked (1993), Nil By Mouth (1997) and The War Zone (1999) – A Room for Romeo Brass sketches the kind of divided social picture in which women hold the home front together, while men are violent or irresponsible or just plain stupid.
Meadows, though, doesn't like to make really despairing films, like those others about the gender war. He avoids showing the really awful and painful calamities of everyday life, and he tries to nudge the action gently towards the possibility of small moments of optimism, binding rituals of family reconciliation.
It's a bittersweet vision: this is a film about everybody who is in some way damaged and disappointed and frustrated with their lot, the walking wounded of ordinary life – but at least, they're still walking.
© Adrian Martin November 2000