Song of Granite
(Ireland/Canada, 97 min.)
Dir. Pat Collins
The world of the musical biopic can be a well-worn path. It can also be one of inspiration.
Pat Collins offers the most original interpretation of a musician in Song of Granite since Todd Haynes cast a gaggle of actors ranging from Richard Gere to Cate Blanchett to embody the many forms of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Song of Granite illuminates the life and music of Joe Heaney through an unclassifiable film that blends verité, neo-realism, archival footage, mockumentary, and good old-fashioned musical performances to create a timeless ode to a significant voice in traditional Irish song. It’s a breathtaking elegy to a man, his music, and the land that created them.
Open your ears to enjoy the sounds of Heaney’s vocals as they catch all the nuances of the Irish language in which the film is shot. Heaney’s Sean-nós performances are superb acapella renditions of traditional Irish songs and each set of unaccompanied vocals provides a soul-stirring chill. Song of Granite is Ireland’s official submission to the Academy Awards race for Best Foreign Language Film and the novelty of seeing a film soar with all cadences and inflections of this rare brogue is a treat that should impress the voters. Language gives an invigorating sense of place and character to Song of Granite. The preservation of the traditional Irish songs reverberates with significance as Collins captures various performances and town meetings in this austere and whimsical language.
There are fleeting glimpses of English when Song of Granite opens with dramatic scenes in Heaney’s childhood town of Carna, Galway. The nuns use the colonial tongue to teach the youngins the ways of the Lord, but there’s something far more spiritual to the verses that the villagers sing in defiant Irish. Young actor Colm Seoighe plays Heaney in these scenes as the boy learns the traditional songs from his father. Collins favours scenes of landscapes and community in these early stages of Heaney’s life as lengthy scenes show the boy strolling through the fields as the camera takes in the daily goings-on in the village. The slice of life realism, shot in breathtaking black and white to accentuate the film’s timeless quality, recalls the poetry of the Quebecois rural classic Pour la suite du monde in its ability to capture the quotidian. An idyllic fishing trip with the boy and his father makes the parallel especially striking.
As Song of Granite progresses, Collins becomes more formally adventurous with Heaney’s story. The boy ages into young man (played by Sean-nós singer Mícheál Ó Confhaola) and then, in the final act of the film, an elder Heaney (played by Macdara Ó Fatharta) reflects on his life in mockumentary-style interviews. At no point in the film does Collins aim for straightforward narrative. Each scene of this episodic film immerses the audience in the community that identifies with Heaney’s music and, in turn, feeds it. Extensive archival images blend with the scenes of pub life and rural labour as Heaney’s songs become a voice for the working class.
These images, which Collins deftly blends with the live action footage, are the most overt nods to documentary in Song of Granite, but the action rarely evokes a work of fiction. Collins assembles a slice of life glimpse into Carna that mostly resembles ethnographic filmmaking. Long takes and deep focus observe as much of the land and the community as the cameras can possible drink in. Scenes in the pubs capture traditional song performances at length and Song of Granite captivates by letting the camera linger on villagers as their voices gravel with the Sean-nós harmonies. One scene, for example, sees two blue-collar men perform a duet in the pub and the camera observes them closely as they grab hands and are united in song. Watching the scene is like standing in a pub sipping a Guinness and raising a glass in spirited thanksgiving.
Collins offers a striking thematic extension to his 2012 drama Silence, which similarly evoked the soundscapes of the land by linking song, community, and territory. The outstanding sound design by Canadian Sylvain Bellemare, who recently won an Oscar for his work on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, might be the true star of the film as the sonorous tunes of Song of Granite transport one through decades in the film of a man who connected his community by preserving and sharing their odes. Echoes of loss and melancholy reverberate throughout Song of Granite. They might be visible in the archival images but their strongest in the plaintive tunes preserved in the soundtrack.
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VIFF runs Sept. 28-Oct. 13.
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Song of Granite also screens at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema on Oct. 10 & 15. The Oct. 10 screening features a performance by Jaren Cerf, who appears in the film.