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From a Whisper to a Scream - The Living History of Irish Music
Fox Lorber/Warner Vision . R4 . COLOR . 155 mins . M . NTSC


Bring up the subject of Irish popular music in a conversation these days and it’s a fairly safe bet that it won’t be long before talk turns to U2, The Corrs, Enya, Sinead O’Connor or the inexplicably popular Riverdance. Over the past couple of decades, Irish artists have infiltrated the charts and our lives to a huge extent, with some of the world’s most successful and durable music acts originating in that country. But this wasn’t always the case - prior to the late ‘70s, very few Irish artists attained much success outside of their home country. But regardless of whether anyone outside Ireland was paying attention, there was plenty of fascinating, innovative and exciting music to be found there.

In recent years, the advent of the serious rock-history documentary has not only given music fans a chance to look back on the story so far and to fill gaps in their musical knowledge, but also legitimised rock and pop music in an unprecedented way. Made for a wide audience and taking the subject matter very seriously, the superb UK series Dancing In The Street set the standard for this type of retrospective; more recently, the ABC’s potted history of Australian music, Long Way To The Top, attempted the same thing with Australia’s own music history. And even as that latter show was in production, a team of people in Ireland were putting together a series using the same concept - but this time, of course, about the history of Irish popular music, a history that really only began in the early 1960s with the advent of television and the rapid modernisation of Ireland in general and Dublin in particular.

From A Whisper To A Scream (the title does not come from the Icicle Works song - they were, after all, from Liverpool - but rather from a Sinead O’Connor interview quote) attempts to squeeze the last four decades of Irish rock and pop into three 52-minute episodes, making it the shortest series of its genre to date. No problem, you think. After all, Ireland doesn’t have all THAT much music history, does it? Well, actually, it does, and there’s so much of it crammed in here that things sometimes feel a little rushed.

Narrated - sort of - by Hot Press Magazine editor Niall Stokes, who also acted as a consultant for the series, From A Whisper To A Scream starts with the cheesy “showbands” that dominated Irish pop music for years (“the showbands were CRAP!” yells Bob Geldof with typical enthusiasm) and charts the slow progress of Irish rock and pop until the explosion of punk, after which nothing would ever be the same again. From there, things escalate rapidly - from Van Morrison to Thin Lizzy to Geldof’s own Boomtown Rats to U2 to My Bloody Valentine to Ash to Boyzone (!) to Afro Celt Sound System to The Corrs to Dave Holmes, reaching a point where Irish music, while distinctly imbued with its own unique character, is just as vital a player on the world stage as the music coming out of England or the US. Copious interview excerpts are provided along the way (with everyone from Van Morrison to Ash’s Tim Wheeler, as well as archival interviews with the late Phil Lynott, amongst others), and there’s reams of archival footage, some of which is quite remarkable (most notably a very, very early U2 fronted by a very Split Enz-inspired Bono!) as well as (sadly but necessarily brief) performance clips. And the sight of MOR mainstay Chris De Burgh grinning inanely down the camera lens as he does Lady In Red as though he’d been possessed by the spirit of Mr Bean, well, that’s worth the price of admission all on its own…

It doesn’t all hit the mark, though - too much time is spent on the Live Aid record and concert simply because of the involvement of Geldof and the performance of U2, and while Geldof’s achievement was undeniable, the event had little to do with Irish music aside from kicking U2’s career into overdrive. Throughout the series, interview subjects are introduced by name without us having been given any background about who they are - a lot of the time, it’s presumed that you know the basics already. Indeed, U2 are barely mentioned until their “first big hit outside Ireland” with New Year’s Day (someone obviously forgot to tell the producers that two albums earlier they’d had their first big international hit with Gloria - right here in Australia). The final episode, which covers the explosion of Irish music in the 90s, has too much ground to cover and as a result leaves out key facts - we’re told of the huge success and long disappearance of My Bloody Valentine, for example, but we’re never told what happened or where they are now (The Edge, though, candidly remarks of MBV, “I didn’t even know they were Irish”!). In the midst of this final-episode chaos, though, there are some surprises - most pleasingly some interview footage with Dave Couse from the magnificent, underrated A-House, along with a couple of clip excerpts. Meanwhile Bob Geldof, true to form, is entertaining and confrontational throughout (along with Bono and The Edge, he is one of the most frequently-appearing faces in all three episodes).

Of course, it’s impossible to include everything in a series like this, however long it may run for; rest assured that From A Whisper To A Scream is a wonderfully entertaining, extremely well produced series that will have immediate appeal to anyone who enjoyed Dancing In The Street or Long Way To The Top. It’s an eye-opener in terms of the breadth and scope of superb music included - in fact, the only major quibble is simply that it’s all a bit too reverent and subjective. But then, there’s so much good stuff to be found in Irish rock and pop music that it makes perfect sense to focus a show like this on the successes, mention the brave failures, and leave everything else to be discovered by those who want to hear more and go searching for it.


Produced in 16:9 format and presented on DVD anamorphically enhanced in that format, From A Whisper To A Scream is, curiously, in NTSC (this fact will be stickered on the disc packaging in stores). Our guess on the reason for this is simply that the series is already available on DVD in the US, but has not been released on disc in Ireland or England - Warner Vision have very likely used the only prepared DVD master currently available. This is a replication of the US glass master, complete with opening logo animations for Winstar Entertainment and Fox Lorber Video, the companies that handled the release there (the series itself was created for Ireland’s RTE television network by some independent producers). The disc is not region coded.

Originally destined for PAL exhibition, this series has had to undergo standards conversion to NTSC, which means the image isn’t quite as sharp and accurate as we’d have liked - bear in mind, though, that much of the “look” of this series is a deliberate choice by the editing team, as the bonus interview segments elsewhere on the DVD show. Obviously there’s a lot of archival footage here - in varying condition and from many different sources - but as always, this has no bearing on our video quality rating. The interview footage, while deliberately “soft”-looking, is rendered perfectly well. There is what looks like a digital videotape glitch at the 1.54.25 mark, but otherwise all is broadcast-clean.

The series can be viewed beginning at the start of any episode or one of several chapters within an episode, but all three episodes are encoded as a single title so that you can play the entire 155-minute series without interruption if you desire. A look at the disc structure reveals that all three episodes are actually encoded separately, but they cannot be played in isolation from one another. The layer change, placed in the middle of episode two, is unobtrusive and quickly navigated. MPEG compression is excellent, with no major artefacts cropping up; almost every bit of space on this dual-layer disc has been used by the authoring team, who’ve taken the opportunity to encode at a suitably high bitrate - a very good thing to see.

Audio is straight stereo and is of good quality, but is somewhat compressed dynamically (this would have been inherent in the master). Many of the archival clips benefit from audio that’s been re-dubbed from modern CDs; lip-sync often suffers because of this, but not to a disturbing extent.

Extras-wise there’s less here than there could have been. Aside from some fairly modest artist discography screens and a screen advertising the DVD-ROM content, there’s a pair of bonus sections that offer raw interview excerpts from many of the interviewed artists; these are themed On Traditional Irish Music and On Earliest Musical Memories. Some interesting stuff lies within, though more would have been greatly appreciated.

The DVD-ROM content consists only of an executable “projector” file created in Macromedia Flash, with some token links to artist sites and a link to video label Winstar’s web address. We would have dearly loved to see a comprehensive list of artists and songs used in the show - there’s no list anywhere in the program credits or on the disc itself, which is a shame.

Still, the real treat on this disc is the series itself, and fans of Irish music - as well as fans of popular music and culture in general - are in for a very pleasant surprise with From A Whisper To A Scream.

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  •   And I quote...
    "Fans of Irish music - as well as fans of popular music and culture in general - are in for a very pleasant surprise..."
    - Anthony Horan
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