Looking back, March 2018 was an unlikely landmark in auteur cinema. While most of the country’s news cycle was taken up with Russian day trips to Salisbury Cathedral, those of a more discerning nature noted that production had concluded on Blackbird, with Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance, announced as the film’s producer. And director. And star. Shot on location in Ireland, London and Barbados, the poster for Flatley’s debut feature saw him decked out in a Bond-like white tuxedo, orbited by co-stars Eric Roberts, Ian Beattie, Patrick Bergin and a number of unnamed bikini babes. Michael Flatley would play secret agent Victor Blackley (‘codename: Blackbird’), retired to a life managing a glamorous Caribbean nightclub until an old – but still young! – flame returns into his life. It’s important to note that Flatley also entirely self-funded the project.
Such singular creative control on a film production can raise eyebrows, but the Riverdance star’s reason for being so involved was that it would otherwise ‘have just taken too long’ to raise the money, and that besides, he didn’t know what he would be doing the next year. But then a scheduled 2019 release date came and went. While it once had pride of place on Flatley’s Instagram feed, the film had minimal online presence, with no trailers. Outside of a few reported private screenings for friends, cast and crew, Blackbird seemed destined to go unseen, the modern version of Jerry Lewis’s infamously unreleased Nazi comedy The Day the Clown Cried. Until last summer.
‘I’m in a luckier position than most because I’ve met people who have seen it. They said it was an experience.’ Irish director Paul Duane knows a thing or two about reclusive creatives, having spent a few years shadowing notorious KLF frontman Bill Drummond for his documentary Best Before Death. That eye for the unusual may be why he’s one of Ireland’s most ardent Blackbird hunters.
Another Flatley-tracker is journalist Brian Lloyd, who has written about his efforts to see the film. Rebuffed for years by distributors, festivals and Flatley’s own executive assistant, Lloyd had given up on ever seeing Blackbird. But then, early last summer, word of its world premiere started spreading on Twitter.
It was to be held at the Monaco Streaming Film Festival, a celebration of ‘the Future of Content Creation and Content Enjoyment, Today’. On its social media channels, the festival announced that the film was set to screen on 5 July, 2021. At a time when people were still nervous about going back into cinemas at all, the possibility of seeing a legendary artwork from the safety of your own home was tantalising.
On the day of Blackbird’s screening, the festival’s website was besieged by film fans, snapping up free tickets and sending email enquiries desperate to grab a glimpse of Flatley. The journalists were confused by the layout of the festival’s website – had they actually got tickets? Where did they click to start watching? Blackbird didn’t appear to be available.
Then it was revealed that the film was being shown that afternoon, but only in person to an audience at the Grimaldi Forum, a conference centre overlooking Larvotto Beach. The only streaming content available on 5 July were panel discussions on best practice in the VOD business. From Dublin, Lloyd felt betrayed.
‘I think I emailed the contact about five or six times. I even called the main ticketing office to try and see if there was a way around it.’ He wasn’t told why the film was unavailable for streaming at the streaming festival. ‘The PR person did, however, tell me that I was more than welcome to pop along to the in-person premiere. In Monaco. During the pandemic. In the middle of a Level 5 lockdown.’
Duane, meanwhile, was looking up flights to the Principality. ‘It was just about possible to get to Monaco in time for the screening, but that wouldn’t have left any time for figuring out how to buy tickets. I abandoned the idea with great reluctance. There was something kind of heroic about running to the airport, getting a taxi, making the flight and turning up on the red carpet minutes before the premiere. I had to give up that dream. But it was a beautiful dream.’
The first few years of any event are always a learning experience, Davis notes, while insisting that the initial plan was for all screenings to be available online. ‘We had originally wished to livestream all of the premieres and screenings… but unfortunately we were unable to achieve this ambition in 2021. We are hoping to livestream the premieres in 2022.’
Some disappointed fans grumbled about conspiracy, a hushed chance for Flatley to technically have released his work. Was the online furore noticed by festival organisers? Had they been aware of the film’s preemptive cult following? Had they prepared for the pending influx of flights from across the world? ‘We did notice a significant level of interest in Michael’s film,’ said Davis, who didn’t find Blackbird to be a film that needed hiding away. ‘The audience reaction was extremely positive and we received wonderful feedback. The premiere was one of the festival highlights.’
At the closing awards, Flatley’s performance – ‘subtle yet powerful, with great screen presence’, per Davis – saw him take home the Best Actor award. Pelé, Julian Lennon and Borat were among other big winners on the night.
Now in his sixties and seemingly shy about widely sharing that great screen presence, it may be unlikely that Flatley goes on to great cinematic success. But the hunger to see his work is sincere for viewers like Duane and Lloyd, tantalised by something unusually rare in the online age: the unattainable.