Film Reviews

REVIEW: Stay Awhile / Home Cooked Music

Hot Docs 2015


Canada, 71 min.
Directed by Jessica Edwards
Toronto Premiere

Director Jessica Edwards puts the sweet music of her family in the frame as she chronicles the largely unsung story of her pop star parents in Stay Awhile. Her mom and dad, Ann and Cliff Edwards, are two of the founding members of The Bells, a once popular Canadian folk pop band. The Bells predate the days of Canadian content regulations so they’re often overlooked in the lore of Canada’s musical history. In a stroke akin to 2013’s ode to back up singers 20 Feet from Stardom, Edwards brings the lives and music of The Bells into the spotlight.

Edwards’ personal closeness to her subjects poses an advantage, since the story of The Bells is a tale of the complexity of family ties just as much as it is a tale of wonderful music. Edwards invites the five members of The Bells to share the history of their group in softly lit interviews. The band speaks together and occasionally apart, but their stories largely sing in tune as they chronicle their unexpected and unlikely rise to gold record status.

Cliff and Ann do most of the talking since their story is also Jessica’s, but Edwards’ aunt Jackie plays an important role in shaping the tale of both the band and the film as she explains the dynamics of the group from a slightly different perspective. Archival footage from old Super 8 reels adds to the picture as The Bells recall how they essentially fell into their musical careers. Ann and Jackie, new to Canada from South Africa, were innocent songbirds until Cliff joined in, to create a unique harmony featuring two female voices and one male. The Bells reached celebrityhood in an awkward get-up of blazers and turtlenecks: the days before The Beatles have a lot of unsung characters, and there’s something sweetly Canadian about The Bells’ modest ensemble and humble origins.

The Bells speak of their rise to fame with an excitement and attention that makes the film akin to a warm, bubbly gathering of friends and family. Edwards draws out a fond history of their success with hits like “Fly Little White Dove Fly” and their biggest success “Stay Awhile” that earned them a Golden Record, international fame, and the honour of being the first Canuck act to play the Copacabana. The songs are beautiful, whimsical ballads of love and peace that ring with groovy harmony. They are ditties that viewers are bound to recognize even if they’re not die hard fans or well-versed in the history of Canadian music. In its modest way, the film is a lesson in the overlooked history of Canuck pop culture.

Edwards smartly juxtaposes the rise of The Bells with the ensuing separation of her own family as Ann decides to leave the band to raise her children just as The Bells are ready to skyrocket. Her departure begins to create a distance between her and Cliff, since her husband (characterized as a bit of a control freak within the group) is married to his music first and foremost. Her absence also invites some tension as fans and media assume a budding relationship between Cliff and Jackie, especially when “Stay Awhile” graces the charts and features intimate-looking photos of the two as the album artwork. A band can only handle so much strain on the road, and the loyalties, sibling rivalries, and mutual love between soul mates complicates the matter even further.

The words of The Bells are both fond and touching, especially Ann’s story, which brings the strongest emotional tenor to the film as she explains the difficult experience of leaving her family when the distance from Cliff became too overbearing. Ann Edwards’ emotional direct address to her daughter sitting behind the camera is extremely effective and moving as she recalls this difficult absence from the family story, and it’s arguably one of the film’s defining moments that reveals how an intimate relationship between filmmakers and subjects brings a higher range of depth and clarity. Similarly, the snippets of Edwards sitting around a fire and sharing wine and memories with her siblings show that Cliff and Ann’s relationship produced more than just great music. The baby Bells (who also appear in some funny TV appearances to sing along with their parents) show none of the side effects of fame and fortune. Neither do The Bells, in fact, as Edwards films the band standing together and reminiscing fondly about their success. Stay Awhile shows that the bond of family endures longer than any hit record in rock and roll history. It’s one family movie you’ll want to see.

Screens with: Home Cooked Music
Canada, 10 min.
Directed by Mike Maryniuk

Mike Maryniuk highlights a different corner of Canuck musical lore in the short doc Home Cooked Music, which chronicles the peculiar craft of musician Lorne Collie. Collie recounts his passion for whipping up musical instruments out of household items and random doo-dads: anything that can hold some strings and carry a tune will suffice, even moose antlers for a guitar! Maryniuk, who previously appeared at Hot Docs with the scrumptious short Packing Up the Wagon, matches Collie’s eclectic craftsmanship with a mix of retro effects and old-school animation. Home Cooked Music is a funky nod to self-invention and a whimsical chord of Canadiana.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Sun, May 3 3:45 PM
Hart House Theatre

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!