Grimley Colliery is in trouble, with the management threatening to close the pit and the community still suffering the effects of the miners' strike of the mid-eighties which has seen their jobs in a precarious position and the flow of cash reduced to a trickle. If there's one constant in at least some of the miners' lives it has been the brass band, which is made up of many of the workers, though now even that is in peril as the miners don't think they can afford to keep it up, not something they're willing to tell the stern bandleader, Danny (Pete Postlethwaite)...
Brassed Off didn't come by that title for nothing, as director Mark Herman's script might have aimed for the crowdpleasing comedy, but it wouldn't have won any awards for subtlety as not far into it you would be well aware of a near-polemical faithfulness to attacking the political system which had brought about the destruction of many communities which relied so much on industry, not only the coal miners, and found nothing to replace it once the Conservative government had closed much of them down to save money, no matter how hated it left them. By the stage this film was released, much of the British public had had enough of these devastating cuts.
Not that this movie was the final nail in the coffin, but its unabashed lambasting of the ruling party was able to catch the mood of the majority of the nation. It wasn't a blockbuster by any means, but it was visible and it succeeded in what Herman and his team set out to do: inform and entertain. Yet it had another effect as well, and that was to transport the audience who wouldn't have given a second thought to brass band music and make them realise this was an inspiring sound played with great skill; listen to how the film expertly placed the tunes at just the right places for maximum emotional reaction and you would be impressed rather than dismissive.
There were two films in the nineties which used the old song Danny Boy for electrifying sequences, Miller's Crossing was one and Brassed Off was the other, proof of a talent for applying what could have been a groaning cliché and rendering it truly stirring. Danny, you see, has a little cough at the beginning of the film which in moviespeak means he's not long for this world, another example of how sentimentality was put into play for the drama - if this had been Herman's sole device then you would have had a work which courted the most hackneyed of Grim Up North efforts and made it resistable for much of the audience it sought to reach. But there was a lot more to it than that.
That was because this was a comedy as well, and though the humour was broad and earthy, it was genuinely funny because of the other aspect which created a winner, the aforementioned social conscience. It was a film Ken Loach would be proud of, which should give you some idea of whether you would appreciate it or not for Herman made no attempt to win over the unconverted, Postelthwaite's bitter rallying call of a speech at the finale made that plain. Among the rest of the cast, Tara Fitzgerald's accent may have been a bit wobbly, but she was appealing as the sole female in the band, joining because she is secretly writing a supportive report for management which they will ignore, Ewan McGregor was her love interest, a non-showy role which he inhabited with integrity, while Stephen Tompkinson had a large share of the big dramatic scenes as Danny's son, destitute and losing his family thanks to the circumstances. It could have been strident and offputting, but Brassed Off was humane and humorous, with The Grimethorpe Colliery Band's music the perfect accompaniment.