On February 20, 2003, a fire at a Rhode Island concert club killed 100 people. The new documentary “41” profiles the world of the youngest fatality of that disaster, the teenage rock singer/composer Nicky O’Neill, whose band Shryne was the opening act on the bill of that ill-fated show. Through family video footage and a tapestry of interviews with those who knew Nicky, his relatively brief life is reconstructed with astonishing depth.
“41” is the collaborative effort of Christian O’Neill, Nicky’s older brother, and Christian de Rezendes, the gifted filmmaker best known for the feature “Getting Out of Rhode Island.” Their resulting production is among the most profoundly moving elegies ever captured on camera – a graceful, life-affirming celebration of a beautiful young man whose energy and good faith touched all who came in contact with him. Even more astonishing, it would appear his influence continues today through situations and circumstances which are difficult to explain away.
Nicky O’Neill’s life was literally captured from start to finish on video. The film covers all aspects of his world, beginning with his wide-eyed wonder at a world seen through his infant eyes through a childhood rich with good humor to the cusp of a young adulthood where his self-assured musical talents strikingly transcend the relatively obvious limits of Rhode Island’s garage band music scene. Even shortly before his death, he can be identified on the video of the club crowd in turmoil as the flames began to engulf the concert venue.
At first, it is easy to confuse “41” with an extended home movie featuring Nicky constantly front and center for the camera (the childhood precocity stage takes a while to endure – as a toddler, he seemed too eager to play for the camera). But what emerges, slowly yet gradually, is the video record and accompanying commentary on formation of the young man’s personality and character.
The hammy kid grew up to become a caring, playful, sincere and highly intelligent young adult who seemed to have a positive influence on all around him. The wealth of footage pieces together his life’s journey and the formation of his personality. At the time of his death, when he jettisoned theater for rock music, his self assurance in front of an audience and a camera was utterly professional. Off stage, he gave of himself with a compassion which seemed highly unusual for a young person in today’s society, especially for those who were suffering through personal tragedies and losses.
Yet Nicky was also rich with contradictions. His mother acknowledges he was a problem student, noting he received the unheard-of grade of “F-” and the permission of the school administrators to drop out (none of his former teachers are interviewed here). His seriousness as an aspiring performer was oddly balanced with his mania for professional wrestling; one friend claims Nicky wanted to be a part of Vince McMahon’s grappler stable, but it appeared his lanky frame would never allow him to reach that goal. One theater manager notes, somewhat drily, that he could be an unpredictable cast member whose ultimate participation was frequently a last-minute surprise. And for someone who embraced the best of life, he became oddly obsessed with dying in the months that preceded his death, as if he knew the end was near.
But Nicky’s death was hardly the end of his story. In fact, “41” details how a new and totally unexpected chapter began for everyone who was a part of Nicky’s world. After Nicky died, his family and his friends rediscovered a one-act play he wrote towards the end of his life. The richly textured play dwelled on issues of fundamentalist Christian hypocrisy and the place of angels in the scheme of things, seemed oddly prophetic in its meditation on passing away. The play was staged (no mean feat, as Nicky’s circle of family and friends were most amateur performers) a year after the fatal club fire.
Even more remarkable were the signs that Nicky didn’t quite leave the world forever. Family and friends point out unexpected and unexplained happenings: a music box turning itself on, exit lights inexplicably flashing during a theater performance, even a call traced to Nicky’s cell phone during the period after the fire when he was missing and presumed dead. A medium is brought in to communicate with Nicky’s ghost, and the audio tape of the attempted contact (which was conducted in a full room of people) produces an alien voice crying “Mommy” during a pause in the medium’s spiritual inquiries.
However, the most curious aspect of Nicky’s legacy was his obsession with the number 41. In his life, and in the lives of those who survived him, the number 41 keeps turning up in odd, ironic and often jolting places. Nicky’s final day was a result of 41; he was 18 years and 23 days old when he died – what’s 18 plus 23, eh? There are plenty of unsettling instances of 41 turning up within the film, but I won’t detail them here because it would easily ruin the effect. (But by all means, pay close attention to the very last shot of the film, where 41 turns up in the most eerie place imaginable.)
What can be said about “41” is how the film works a remarkable magic on the viewer. The film’s message goes beyond the Nicky O’Neill story into a greater commentary on human relations: how one inspirational person can set off a chain reaction within his orbit, emboldening people to follow his lead for positive means. An argument could be made that Nicky O’Neill’s premature death was not a tragedy, since tragedy would suggest an abrupt end and Nicky’s goals continue to be carried on by those he touched – the young man is not with us in person, but his spirit remains alive and eternal.
“41” is a much-needed reminder of all that is good in the world, and a poignant tribute to one person who was uncommonly good for the world. It is a heartbreaking and soul-enriching experience, and it is one of the year’s finest accomplishments.