Wannabes Showcases Belfast Girl Band

A 'Spinal Tap for the pop generation' tells the tale of three girls with big ambitions

Right from its infancy, pop music has had a dual life on the screen. From early rock and roll movies, to the Monkees’ musical adventures on television, right through to the modern age of multimedia assaults from artists like Lady GaGa, it’s felt as if the sound was just one aspect of pop’s appeal.

Wannabes is the latest twist in the tale. It tells the story of three girls from west Belfast who have a dream of becoming the next big thing (the first episode aired on BBC NI on August 23, and the second and final episode on August 31).

Wannabes was filmed over 14 months by Belfast documentary maker Ben Jones who, along with his brother Sam, makes up Hooptedoodle productions, the independent production company responsible for the documentary (in collaboration with DoubleBand Films). Jones explains how Wannabes – truely a Spinal Tap for the pop generation – came about.

'I first came across the girls because one of them worked with my wife. She just kept going on about her band. She saw another film we’d made (Prods and Pom-Poms) and said, “You should make a film about our band,” and kept going on and on about it. I wasn’t that interested at first, but eventually went along and filmed a scene of them doing a photoshoot in the alley outside Lavery’s Bar and I was just hooked.'

'I’d been singing for a long, long time, and just basically wanted to get back into it,' laughs Kat O’Reilly, the persistent girl in question. After impressing Jones at their photoshoot, her band Voodoo found themselves becoming the stars of their own documentary film, before they’d even played their first gig.

'I thought there was a gap in the market, a gap in the Belfast scene,' O'Reilly adds. 'You just don’t see girl bands here. I just went for it, put an ad in Gumtree, got a load of girls to audition, and ended up with Vicky and Carly.'

The documentary would chart their rise to fame (or should that be, to infamy?), in the face of a sceptic public. And since the first episode aired, social networking sites in Northern Ireland have been buzzing with posts and retweets about the girl band who initially considered the moniker G String as a name and constantly forget their lyrics.

Belfast has shown time and time again that it is more than happy to take a pot shot (figuratively speaking) at anyone who sticks their head above the parapet, and in the case of a west Belfast girl band, it’s almost too easy a target to resist.

The three girls are seen trying to launch their band in an environment almost completely opposed to this sort of dream chasing. They canvas Lavery’s for funds to help pay for the dance troupe they’ve recruited; tensions flare as the girls experience their first taste of 'musical differences'; rehearsals go badly; and plans to reach for the skies seem increasingly preposterous.

But all the while, the spirit of the three girls shines through. They are, seemingly, almost incapable of backing down and doing what everyone else thinks they should do: which is to pack it in.

The two-part series is both hilarious and touching in equal measure, and makes for great voyeuristic television. We laugh as singing practice falls apart, and dance lessons reveal more than a slight lack of co-ordination, but we also end up rooting for them, wanting them to keep going, even if it might only be to prolong our fascination and laughter.

'I was totally blind to what I was getting into. I only wanted to sing! But it turned into two crazy, mental years.'

Reflecting on the broadcast of the first episode, O'Reilly takes a pragmatic view, aware that she might not have come across on screen quite as she meant to, but also aware that all the statements and decisions were taken by her, the band's leader.

'We enjoyed the whole process, and all the time were thinking that it would get us on TV. And for myself, I was thinking that it would do no harm. I mean, after watching the first episode, I’m traumatised! But the second part tells a different story, and maybe we come across as a bit more credible?

'But if you want to be a singer or a performer, that’s what you have to do. All we were worried about at the time was trying to move forward. It was warts and all, and we knew what we were saying and doing. Belfast is very false, full of people trying to get onto the scene. We were totally real, ugly and all! We didn’t care, getting our make-up done, or sounding like absolute crap during rehearsals… but that’s real life, isn’t it?”

Jones takes a similar view on how he attempted to capture the realities of his subjects. 'There was stuff that happened where you were inwardly going, “This is crazy!” but you want them to succeed, and I think that comes across in the film. I don’t want people to think we exploited them or were taking the mickey out of them. I want people to have a good laugh, but still be rooting for them at the end of the day.

'There was times when they began to question us, saying “Are you just filming us when things go wrong!” But we were just filming things as they happened. The camera was running, and when things go wrong, it can be as interesting as when they go right.'

It’s a fine line to tread, and whether the film succeeds in selling us the notion of a west Belfast girl band is a matter of speculation. For every person watching and getting on-board with the band, there’s sure to be someone roaring with laughter and hoping for failure.

But would the girls have got the attention without the film crew in tow? Perhaps not. O’Reilly remains realistic about the exchange that takes place when you allow a film crew to document your every move, and hopes that Wannabes will help her future career in the music business.

'People are maybe rooting for you, thinking “Wouldn’t it be great to see the girls do well?” I think it really helps. I want to sing, but I’m not an oil painting, I’m not a model, I’m not a stick insect. People probably relate to that, and anybody can follow their dream.

'I was talking to my new band (Superfiction) last night, saying “Is this going to damage what I’m doing now?” Things have moved on, and…I don’t know. If you’re talking about being credible, it probably hasn’t done me any favours. But, that’s what happened then, and it’s part of your life. I don’t regret anything at all.'

The second episode of Wannabes aired on BBC NI at 11.20pm on August 31. Watch the first episode here.