Singer Brian Kennedy on celebrating 'multicultural Belfast' with film debut

As Brian Kennedy makes his acting debut in a Cinemagic film short which celebrates the positives of Belfast a quarter of a century after the Good Friday Agreement, Jenny Lee chats to the singer about his optimism, growing up during the Troubles and his hopes for the future

Young actors Chris Campbell and Conlaoch Gough pictured with Brian Kennedy and Cinemagic Chief Executive Joan Burney Keatings, during the filming of So What If It Rains
Young actors Chris Campbell and Conlaoch Gough pictured with Brian Kennedy and Cinemagic Chief Executive Joan Burney Keatings, during the filming of So What If It Rains Young actors Chris Campbell and Conlaoch Gough pictured with Brian Kennedy and Cinemagic Chief Executive Joan Burney Keatings, during the filming of So What If It Rains

OPTIMISM and a positive outlook on life, no matter what obstacles come your way, has always been the philosophy of Belfast singer Brian Kennedy.

Raised during the Troubles in West Belfast, Kennedy witnessed a lot of conflict during his childhood. In more recent years, he has battled cancer and survived a heart attack. Yet, he still looks towards the “sunshine”, no matter what life throws in his path.Relishing being back gigging again, he’s also enjoyed stepping into the acting world, in a short film which epitomises his view of life.Taking its title from Kennedy’s 2001 song, So What If It Rains, the short was produced by the award-winning film festival charity Cinemagic to mark the 25th Anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement.“We all experience bad weather – personally, politically, socially and economically. For me, the song is a very simplified idea that you go “so what?” and trying to be optimistic, regardless of the weather.”Kennedy credits his robustness to “surviving” his childhood on the Falls Road in Belfast.“They were the worst periods in history, and here we are still singing, still being optimistic and moving forward.”So What If It Rains tells the story of brothers Jack and Johnny, who leave their farm for the big smoke – Belfast. There, they find a music legend, who takes them under his wing, and a city that pulses with, to coin another Kennedy song, a new rhythm of ‘life, love and happiness’.

In the film, he “does and doesn’t” play himself, as writer and director Maire Campbell uses some creative license in the storyline.“Whilst I do sing as myself, I'm playing a heterosexual man who had a past love, so I’m definitely acting. Mind you, I don't think there's a gay person in the world who hasn't pretended to be straight at some point in their lives,” laughs the 56-year-old, who has been very open about his own sexuality in the past.“I'm comfortable being around cameras and playing live, but the whole acting world is new to me: but it’s a challenge I love.”So, is more acting on his wishlist?“Maybe, it depends on the part, “ he replies coyly.“With So What If It Rains, Maire was so clear and decisive about her direction, it made things easier.”

Brian Kennedy filming a scene from So What If It Rains
Brian Kennedy filming a scene from So What If It Rains Brian Kennedy filming a scene from So What If It Rains

The film stars a host of young Northern Ireland talent, including Millisle-born songwriter Taylor Lally and acting newcomers Chris Campbell and Conlaoch Gough in the lead roles.Kennedy is conscious that the young people he worked with on the film didn’t experience first-hand the violence on the streets the way he did.“I call them 'the untroubled generation',” he laughs.“I've a nephew and niece and their priorities and worries are very, very different. They didn't have to negotiate what we had to, just to have a regular, semi-ordinary life.“Of course, they're aware of our history, but they're not holding onto it hard. They're thinking about the future. That's what the movie is about - focusing on what's possible in the future.”Kennedy has fond memories of celebrating the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 by singing alongside Van Morrison. The duo also performed together outside Belfast City Hall in November 1995 to mark US President Bill Clinton’s first visit to the north.“I was very friendly with Mo Mowlam [former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland] and lucky to spend some time in and around Stormont at that time for various reasons.“Singing lyrics such as 'there is no religion here today' was special. It didn't hit me until about a week after when watching the footage on television, how monumental it was in terms of our history.”Twenty-five years on, what does the Good Friday Agreement mean to him?“Progress has definitely been made, but given what has happened since lockdown with the DUP standing down and reduced funding for schools and our health service, we need to keep the pressure on to keep moving forward. Hopefully, the anniversary will make people refocus on the agreement and remember why it was set up.“Every time I go to Belfast, and I bring people there, they can't get over how fantastic Belfast is, how vibrant it is and how multicultural it is. I want to keep my focus on that.“That was very much the focus of the film - the new Belfast, the multicultural Belfast and the place where all kinds of people co-exist together.”

Brian Kennedy filming a scene from So What If It Rains
Brian Kennedy filming a scene from So What If It Rains Brian Kennedy filming a scene from So What If It Rains

The starting point for So What If It Rains was in focus groups which asked young people currently living in the north what the Good Friday Agreement and the 'new Northern Ireland' meant to them.“They didn’t live through the Troubles and what they knew came mainly through their parents. What did keep coming up was music, which is why the film took that narrative,” explains Joan Burney Keatings, Cinemagic chief executive.“Young people love music and they love dancing. If you can't celebrate when you're young, when can you?,” adds Kennedy.“It was great being around those young spirits during filming and young actors who treasure the Northern Irish accent as well.“Just look at what happened at the Oscars with Belfast’s James Martin – what Cinemagic is doing to help train and inspire our young people is so important and it’s been exciting being a passenger,” enthuses Kennedy, who is open to being a part of any international film festival opportunities for the film in the coming year.Shot in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and also featuring drone footage of iconic landmarks across the city, Burney Keatings describes So What If It Rains as “a fun, uplifting movie, with a positive message”.“It pulls at your heartstrings, but hopefully you will come away with a big smile on your face and go ‘wow, Belfast looks brilliant’,” she enthuses.So What If It Rains is an indication of the ongoing work that Cinemagic has delivered since its inception 34 years ago, utilising film to bring communities together, promoting the values of the Agreement, and instilling those values within the next generation.“Reconciliation work is core to everything we do. Over the years, we would create the magic of a safe environment where people from all backgrounds could work together.”As well as two features, Cinemagic has produced hundreds of short films about issues of concern to young people, as well as delivering programs and festivals in Belfast, Dublin, London, New York and Los Angeles and the Middle East.So What If It Rains, together with two of Cinemagic’s most recent international shorts, will be screened in a Gala Showcase in Belfast next month.

Abia, which highlights the violence faced by women in Syria and Jordan, was last month honoured with a special award from the City of Los Angeles, for its ‘talent and courage’.The third film being shown, Heaven on Earth, was inspired by the real-life story of Los Angeles high school student Heaven Watson and focuses on climate change from the point of view of a young activist.Cinemagic has already begun to share So What If It Rains? with foreign embassies and has the ambition to take the film “all over the world”, to both film festivals and foreign offices.“We want to reach out to every region we can think of and use this as a story about how a country has come through conflict," says Burney Keatings.As well as some gigs to celebrate the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Kennedy, who says his health is “all good”, is looking forward to a busy summer of festivals, including Liverpool in May and a headlining slot at Larne’s Friends Goodwill Music Festival alongside Mary Coughlan and Curtis Stigers on May 20.“I'm in the middle of recording my 18th album right now and there’s loads going on,” adds Kennedy.:: The Cinemagic Gala Showcase will take place on May 24. Tickets will be available on cinemagic.org.uk from April 17.