After his turn as Inspector Javert in Les Miserables, Russell Crowe’s passion for music is no longer a secret. In fact, he has been playing for years with a number of close friends and musical collaborators, all famous in their own rights. Jaime Lubin talks to a few of the lads about what brought them together.
Backstage at New York’s Town Hall, I catch up with three of Russell Crowe’s closest colleagues, Moley and Owen O’Suilleabhain, a brotherly musical duo formerly known as Size2Shoes, and Alan Doyle, the lead singer of Canadian band Great Big Sea, who are in the city on their 20th anniversary tour. The three guys are part of Crowe’s boisterous, tight-knit circle of creative talent – which also includes actors Kevin Durand (Fruitvale Station) and Scott Grimes (American Dad!). A modern-day Rat Pack, they are a gang of true companions passionately dedicated to producing quality art and having fun while they’re at it.
Informally dubbed “The Merry Men” after their experiences on the set of the 2010 movie Robin Hood, the guys have collaborated for nearly a decade on projects spanning the arenas of film, television, music, and live performance. Last year they reunited in New York for one of their trademark Indoor Garden Party concerts (variety-show-style evenings of songs and stories), and spent the rest of their time in the city filming Winter’s Tale, Akiva Goldsman’s highly-anticipated adaptation of Mark Helprin’s epic novel.
“I hear the sound of Irish wankers!” Alan shouts (he hails from Petty Harbour, Newfoundland), breaking into a huge smile as the O’Suilleabhains (Limerick natives now living in Manhattan) round the corner into the dressing room. And just like that, we’ve passed through the invisible gate to the boys’ club.
The trio’s steady, overlapping stream of inside jokes flows like a familiar vaudeville routine.
“There’s a definite lads’ buzz going on [in our friendship],” Moley admits, slapping Andy on the back. “Everyone is so funny. You could kill yourself laughing,” says Owen. But it’s not all about fun. “We’ve never met a more virtuosic, more talented group of people,” says Moley seriously.
It was Crowe who brought the group together over a period of several years. He first worked with Scott and Kevin on the 1999 film Mystery, Alaska, where they introduced him to the music of Great Big Sea; in 2004 Russell met Alan in person and broached the idea of joining creative forces, which resulted in the album My Hand, My Heart and countless songs for both Great Big Sea and Russell’s band The Ordinary Fear of God.
Crowe and Doyle met the O’Suilleabhain brothers, the sons of Ireland’s famous composer Micheal O’Suilleabhain, in Kilkee, West Clare in 2008.
“[It was] at the unveiling of a statue that the Kilkee community had erected for Richard Harris, and Russell, whose ancestors are from Clare, and Alan were going to sing this song “Mr. Harris Take the Field” [an in memoriam track from My Hand, My Heart] at the ceremony. Russell had previously written to the local council asking them to provide a choir and some other musicians. We were very good friends with the people involved with this statue, and they asked us to be the band,” says Owen.
Moley laughs. “Russell was told it would be a fifty-person choir.”
“And then me and Moley just show up,” Owen says, grinning. “There was this guy with lights, four old women, and me and Moley. And that was it. We sat down in front of Russell and Alan, and they instantly responded to what we were doing [musically]. We hung out with them for two nights, and then Russell just says, ‘Keep in touch.’ And we did.”
That meeting led to an invitation to visit the set of Robin Hood in the English countryside two years later, where the Merry Men concept solidified following a casual jam session that provided the template for the first Indoor Garden Party (IGP).
Alan believes much of the IGP’s appeal stems from its deep ancestral roots: “The cool thing about the Garden Parties is they’re fun and the format is kind of old-school. For me it’s [reminiscent] of when I was growing up in Petty Harbour – that’s the way the Christmas concerts were. There was a big chorus at the beginning where everyone sings, and then Mary from down the harbor comes and she’s gonna sing [her solo song]. It was a way for communities to entertain themselves.”
The variety-show concert seems to be prevalent in Irish-influenced locales, as Owen concurs, “For some reason in Ireland and in Newfoundland too, those pre-mass music traditions survive. Every Christmas in our family, when we all gather, everyone has their song that they sing. Every year the exact same song.”
“It’s that lovely reassurance,” Moley posits. “‘Everyone’s still alive! Another year down!’ It’s kind of like a ritual. And the Garden Party definitely has that.”
Alan notes, “We end up doing these concerts in crazy different parts of the world, whether in England or Ireland or St. Johns, Newfoundland or New York. But it’s always the same gang. The films and the Garden Parties – they’re really vehicles that get us all together. And I hope that’s okay, because I love that.”
Few vehicles could be better suited to the Merry Men’s purposes than Winter’s Tale, the story of a thief (Colin Farrell) with a magic horse who runs afoul of the murderous Pearly Soames (Russell) and his gang the Short Tails. The film’s setting switches back and forth between 1916 and present-day New York, and its cast is star-studded: Will Smith, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint and Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay all appear in roles significant to the plot.
Winter’s Tale, which will be released on Valentine’s Day 2014, is a longtime passion project – and the feature directorial debut – for Akiva Goldsman, the writer-producer behind a slew of major motion pictures including A Beautiful Mind, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and I Am Legend.
“Everybody loves Akiva,” says Doyle (who plays the villainous Dingy Worthington in the film), “so anyone that Akiva asked to do the movie said yes. And getting to work with Russell and Akiva, the excellence that came with that team, it’s mind-blowing.”
“If you look at The Life of Pi, it’s the same vein of magical realism, and it’s just going to be beautiful,” Moley interjects. He and Owen play Russell’s silent, glowering henchmen.
Doyle describes the film as a love letter to New York. “There’s no better place in the world to situate the timeless battle between good and evil than in New York City, because it’s the microcosm of Planet Earth.”
Shooting in New York might have sounded like a dream come true, but in October 2012 Hurricane Sandy struck the northeastern United States, plunging the city into darkness and wreaking havoc with production.
“I think the producers would say it was a bit of a nightmare,” Doyle observes.
Though they caught some flak for shooting in storm-damaged parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, the good feelings the production brought to the boroughs during that turbulent period resulted in a positive impact.
“What was cool about the whole situation,” Doyle says, “is that we were in this movie, effectively all about New York, right at the time the city needed it the most.”
“As musicians we have nothing to lose and nothing to prove,” Owen asserts, “so we could really enjoy ourselves. We’d start singing songs, just having a laugh with the lads, and we got a lot of great response to that from the other people on set.”
Even their fearless leader did his part to instill confidence in the masses. “There was one scene we shot in the basement of a church and Russell had to sing for all the extras between takes,” Moley says. “That was a long day. Russell gave a rousing speech, got the energy all up again, and when he was done he cued us to sing some Gregorian chant. It was a divine experience.”
Yet another element to Winter’s Tale’s raw majesty lies in the film’s intrinsic Irish sensibility, which proved powerfully resonant for the guys.
According to Moley, “We were blown away at the Irishness of New York, and America in general, when we first moved here. To then be placed into a project that is essentially an Irish story, at a time  when the city was almost completely Irish, at the end of nine months living in New York, it felt really right but completely random as well. There was one scene on a bridge where Russell is beating up Colin Farrell, and Russell walks in and hands us his hat and takes off his jacket –”
“And it’s epic,” Owen interrupts excitedly, eyes gleaming. “Totally epic. This is an iconic Irish scene in Hollywood movie history, where Russell punches Colin off a bridge. It was a big deal because Colin Farrell’s like one of Ireland’s coolest motherfuckers, and Russell uses an Irish accent for this. He’s sort of channeled this Richard Harris-esque accent.”
“Russell actually pulls off a really evil character,” Moley agrees. “He gets kind of demonic.”
“Being Irish [and working on this film] was a big deal, and a joy to be part of. It could’ve been any movie, but the generosity of Russell and Akiva to invite us into that… The fit was amazing,” says Owen.
“It’s not like they were asking you to be Italian waiters,” Alan cracks.
Each of the Merry Men is currently blazing through his own projects. Russell and Kevin are already on to their next films (and, knowing Russell, developing a torrent of new music). Apart from his television work, Scott is writing and composing songs for an upcoming album and plays an integral role in the celebrity musical group Band From TV, which raises money for various good causes (he and lead singer Bob Guiney formed an offshoot act, Guiney and Grimes, which enables them to perform at a wider range of events). Alan is touring both individually and with Great Big Sea, and is writing a book of personal anecdotes to be published Fall 2014.
Owen and Moley recently released a new album, Sacred Songs, containing a mix of original material and traditional Irish tunes with their own unique spin. The O’Suilleabhains do an enviable amount of globe-trotting on their own and with Irish poet David Whyte, and in addition to their numerous other endeavors they speak at religious festivals and charity events. Clearly the lads know how to give back in more ways than one.
Owen sums it up very nicely: “Russell’s idea to Alan, Scott, Kevin, ourselves, was it’s actually about the entertainment, the audience, and it’s about this generosity. That’s what sort of drives us, is to go out and give. Every time, any crowd, one hundred percent. That’s one thing we all share. It’s not an ego thing; it’s just going out and making sure everything happens. It’s all about vibes and generosity and letting people in.”
It all sounds very simple – pure fun, pure giving. Maybe that’s why it’s so rare, and so enjoyable, to see the Merry Men do what they do. Plans for an IGP in Australia this January have been announced to much rejoicing.
“As friends,” Moley notes, “we have achieved a level of excellence that crosses genre and boundary. And that Rat Pack IGP is a throwback to this more imaginative time where you don’t need special effects.”
“Shouldn’t that be what movies are?” Alan inquires. “Shouldn’t that be what concerts are? Guys that want to get together and do stuff, sing a song, tell stories? That’s cool, right?”
It doesn’t get any cooler than that.