An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Little Voice (1998)
PUBLISHED: 06:28 26 August 2018
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different
Little Voice, dir: Mark Herman; starring: Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn, Michael Caine, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, Philip Jackson. Cert: 15 (1998)
It’s says something about the stunning central performance delivered by Jane Horrocks as Laura, the eponymous Little Voice, that she can rightly claim this film as her own, even though she shares the screen with such larger-than-life co-stars as Michael Caine, Brenda Blethyn, Ewan McGregor and Jim Broadbent.
For those who have only experienced Jane Horrocks in Absolutely Fabulous or in Sky’s supermarket sit-com Trollied, her performance in Mark Herman’s film is nothing short of a revelation.
Without the help of any audio-trickery (made explicit in the end credits) she not only did all her own singing but mimicked some of the greatest performers of the 20th Century – creating pitch-perfect vocal copies of Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and Billie Holiday.
It is an extraordinary achievement but, more than that, these uncanny impersonations hold this beautiful, funny and heart-rending film together.
Horrocks knows her character and the material well because she made the part her own in the Jim Cartwright stage play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Set in a northern seaside town (much of the film was shot in Scarborough), it tells the story of shy, retiring Laura, who lives above the record shop that her late, much missed dad used to run.
Dominated by her loud, outgoing mother – brought vividly to life by Brenda Blethyn – Laura stays closeted in her bedroom surrounded by her father’s classic record collection. She plays her over and over committing to memory each timeless performance.
Laura’s Mum, Mari (Blethyn) is obsessed with finding a new man to share her life, bringing home from the pub a succession of less than desirable men. Her latest squeeze is Ray Say (Michael Caine), a down on his luck London club promoter who is now reduced to managing strippers in this northern backwater.
One evening a battle of wills develops between Mari playing It’s Not Unusual downstairs and Laura singing That’s Entertainment upstairs. Ray hears Laura’s big voice and realises that he’s in the presence of an extraordinary talent. However, once he meets his new singing sensation he is rather taken aback that Laura’s voice is not reflected in a big personality; she’s a shy recluse who speaks in a whisper and it dawns on him that her nickname is not an attempt at irony.
Horrocks’ performance is so honest and has such charm that you continue to look at her even though Caine, Blethyn and Jim Broadbent are having the time of their lives playing a rogues gallery of small-time chancers.
Caine’s Ray Say is an opportunistic charmer and he brings his friend, the gloriously rumpled Mr Boo (Jim Broadbent), owner of a local club, to audition Little Voice. But, Laura refuses to sing, however, afterwards, while they’re standing on the pavement, they hear what appears to be Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow drifting down from her bedroom and Mr Boo knows that if he can get her onto his stage he will make a fortune.
However, there is also a romantic complication in the form of Billy, Ewan McGregor’s telephone engineer and pigeon fancier. Both Laura and Billy are shy but are passionate about the small world’s they inhabit. Laura loves singing and her music and Billy is completely absorbed by his birds but it gradually becomes clear that they are also passionate about each other.
It is this emotional honesty which keeps the film grounded in the real world, despite Michael Caine, Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent doing a fantastic job turning this into a larger-than-life character comedy.
Mark Herman, who was also responsible for the touching mining community comedy Brassed Off, does a fantastic job in bringing together two seemingly disparate styles – a slice of gritty realism and a wish fulfilment fairytale.
Despite the desire of Caine, Blethyn and Broadbent to steal every scene they are in, Little Voice remains Jane Horrocks’ film. Her quiet goodness and her amazing vocal prowess are more than enough to win a place in our hearts and minds. A wonderfully British film in every way.