By Don Simpson | December 24, 2009
Director: Tom Quinn
Writer: Tom Quinn
Starring: Greg Lyons, Jennifer-Lynn Welsh, Andrew Conway, MaryAnn McDonald, Tobias Segal, Irene Longshore, Paul Blackway
The story begins with the announcement that the South Philadelphia String Band placed a lowly 13th place in the Philadelphia New Year Parade (a.k.a. Mummers Parade). Mike McMonogul (Andrew Conway) and his 25-year old son Jack (Greg Lyons – some might know him as the drummer for the Eastern Conference Champions) are devastated; but it is not only their squad’s depressing loss that has got them down in the dumps – Mike recently discovered that his wife Lisa (MaryAnn McDonald) cheated on him and he has moved out of his family’s home.
The working class Irish-American McMonogul family finds themselves in a state of flux and one of significant turmoil. Jack and his younger sister Kat (Jennifer Walsh) find a majority of the financial and housekeeping burdens resting steadily on their shoulders, as their parents’ relationship spirals helplessly out of control. Jack is torn between staying with his father on the losing South Philadelphia String Band or moving on to a winning squad like the Quaker City String Band; while Kat struggles with the growing pains (not to mention crazed hormones) prone to a teenage Catholic high school girl.
There is much loudness – arguing, screaming, fighting – and unbridled emotion throughout The New Year Parade. Unfortunately, when things get loud they also become overly forced and overtly faked (this is especially true with the adult actors). Otherwise, when things are quiet the subtle mastery of Quinn’s kino eye and the actors’ keen understanding of the unique microcosm that is South Philadelphia culture shine brilliantly.
There is a scene in Tom Quinn’s The New Year Parade in which the South Philadelphia String Band’s maestro exclaims to his sloppy band of hooligan musicians: “The space with no sound is as important as the space with the notes in it!” The same could be said for this film – in fact, the spaces with no sound outweigh the spaces with dialogue in terms of meaning and effectiveness. The New Year Parade is at its best when Quinn’s cinematic eye meditates quietly on the South Philadelphia environs: the 9th Street market; the I-95 overpass; the neighborhood bar; the narrow South Philadelphia streets; the Mummer’s costumes.
Utilizing the Mummers and String Bands – keystones of Philadelphia’s New Year Parade – as a backdrop for this story is an intriguing touch. There is something fascinating about working class men – most of which are the textbook definition of macho or machismo – having this alternate life in which they choreograph elaborate dance routines, design massive set pieces and dress up in feathers and sequins (and don’t forget all of the make-up). In other words, Mummers are the stars of a film that Fellini never got around to making. The Two Street (a.k.a. 2nd Street – where many of the String Band clubs are located) culture is just as inimitable as that of the surrounding environs of South Philly (thanks to my maternal grandmother, a culture I found myself immersed in for most of my childhood – it is also worth mentioning that I have attended, purely as a spectator, Philadelphia’s New Year Parade at least 15 times).
I have attempted to explain South Philadelphia to many people, and I can just never get it right. Sometimes I make it sound too strange, while other times my descriptions are just not strange enough…I have learned that the only way to understand and appreciate South Philly is to become fully immersed in it. Quinn actually gets a lot of the South Philly culture right, especially with the accuracy of Jack and Kat’s characters. (Of the entire cast, Jennifer Walsh really stands out as an authentic South Philadelphian – mainly because she keeps the performance toned-down and authentic.)
Quinn’s film is a quintessential love letter for South Philly and Philadelphia’s New Year Parade; other Philadelphians may understand and appreciate it, but I’m just not sure that non-Philadelphians will really get it (that said – The New Year Parade has snagged countless film festival awards including Best Narrative Feature at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival). Cinema goers who appreciate gritty and visually poetic American neo-realism (ala John Cassavetes – note: The New Year Parade was nominated for the 2010 Independent Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award) might want to give New Year Parade a try. Quinn has a lot of talent, and I think with a better pool of lead adult actors he could become a force to be reckoned with.