Musicians who died before their time

Mill Valley Film Festival features two musicians who died before their time


Jerry and Sean Hannan, the Mad Hannans. Martin Shore is the director of “Mad Hannans,” one of the films featured at the Mill Valley Film Festival. (Photo provided by MVFF)Jerry and Sean Hannan, the Mad Hannans. Martin Shore is the director of “Mad Hannans,” one of the films featured at the Mill Valley Film Festival. (Photo provided by MVFF)  


Man, what an awful week. The horror of Las Vegas followed by the death of Tom Petty. Not to further bum you out, but I’m here to tell you about a pair of documentaries in the Mill Valley Film Festival that just happen to be about two musicians who left us too soon.

First there’s the world premiere of “Mad Hannans,” a full-length film about brothers Jerry and Sean Hannan, who co-founded a band that caused a sensation on the Marin music scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s until cult success and the high life that went with it contributed to their breakup. One of their biggest fans was Sean Penn, who appears prominently in the film. 

After years of estrangement, the brothers decided to get back together in an attempt to recapture the old magic and record an album of their signature Irish folk rock. Director Martin Shore, a friend of theirs, thought the reunion would make a fascinating short film. 

But when Sean Hannan was diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer, the Hannans’ story took a tragic turn that brought the brothers together in a bond of love and support that went beyond their musical collaboration. Shore was there to capture every poignant moment.

“The tragedy is that we were excited about the Mad Hannans getting back together,” Jerry told me when I spoke to him recently. “We were on really good terms. Everything was super great, and then lightning strikes. It’s a brutal story.”

Through home movies and the recollections of Jerry and three of his five brothers and sisters, Shore gives us a look at the Hannans’ carefree childhood in San Rafael’s leafy Dominican neighborhood. The Hannan kids grew up with a big swimming pool full of their frolicking friends and bombed around the backyard in a miniature car that their auto dealer father (the erstwhile Shamrock Motors in Mill Valley) brought home for them to play with.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Sean was the youngest, and when their parents split up when he was barely school age, it seemed to affect him the most deeply. Jerry seems to think that may have had something to do with the anger that erupted from him after seven years together in their band. 


The family was involved in Irish music and dance when the boys were growing up, which influenced the music the brothers made when they formed the Mad Hannans in 1997. A charismatic front man, Jerry sang lead and played acoustic guitar. Sean was a backup singer and played drums standing up so he could be in the spotlight with his brother, but that co-billing didn’t prevent the resentment he felt when Jerry got the star treatment he believed should have been his as well.

The brothers wrote smart, funny, quirky songs about everything from romance to car detailing. Penn used one of their songs, “I Thought I Was You,” in the soundtrack of his 2007 movie “Into the Wild.”


The brothers had a chemistry they could never duplicate playing with other people, and they both knew better than anyone that they were better together than apart. So they had high hopes after their first reunion gig on St. Patrick’s Day at Peri’s, a bar in Fairfax, followed by jam-packed shows at Sweetwater, Rancho Nicasio and other Bay Area clubs. 

“A lot of the pettiness drifted away,” Jerry says in the film.

But this was not going to be a story with a happy ending. A bump on Sean’s toe turned out to be malignant. When his foot was amputated, his doctors thought that he’d make a complete recovery. So everyone was devastated when the cancer returned. And not everyone agreed when Sean decided to forego traditional cancer treatment for alternative therapies. After a yearlong struggle, he died in 2013 at the age of 45.

Screenings of “Mad Hannans” Friday night and Monday afternoon are sold out, as is Jerry’s live show at Sweetwater Friday night. The festival often adds screenings if there’s enough demand for tickets. Let’s hope that happens with this emotionally touching local film.


Paul Liberatore