The Song and the Sorrow
(Canada, 43 min.)
Dir. Millefiore Clarkes
Anne Murray’s “Snowbird” is a buoyant and breezy ray of sunshine that helped put Canadian music on the map. Listen closely to the words, though, and this song is actually one of great sadness. As penned by the late singer-songwriter Gene MacLellan, “Songbird” conveys great sorrow as it expresses a hunger to escape and fly freely. It takes MacLellan’s daughter Catherine to recognize the heartache in the song that many people find so sweet.
Catherine continues her father’s legacy as a musician, but she also inherited his struggles with mental illness. One difference between the elder MacLellan’s era and Catherine’s is an overall openness in terms of how people now discuss mental illness. Back in Gene’s day, he only put his words into songs to express his pain.
Music still offers a cathartic outlet to people living with mental illness, but people of Catherine’s generation have the fortune of speaking openly about their conditions without as great a fear of stigma. The music and legacy of the MacLellan clan receives a poignant and thoughtful study in Millefiore Clarkes’ NFB doc The Song and the Sorrow, which opened last night’s Rendezvous with Madness Festival with a screening that featured a musical encore from Catherine. Clarkes has previously worked with MacLellan on several music videos and the doc sparks with a natural rapport between the director and her subject. The Song and the Sorrow offers an intimate portrait of the two generations of MacLellans as Catherine retraces her father’s life and music in search of answers to help her understand the man she lost—and the mental illness with which she lives.
The film draws audience close as Catherine sits down with her family and Gene’s peers to excavate his past. The Song and the Sorrow avoids the one-note celebratory pitfall of many profile docs as it contains all of MacLellan’s greatest hits while conveying the lows that accumulated until he committed suicide in January 1995. Catherine visits a number of notable figures in Gene’s musical circle, including Anne Murray and Ron Hynes, the latter of whom performs a bit from his song “Godspeed,” written in farewell to MacLellan. They, like many of the interviewees, didn’t recognize the signs that Gene was mentally ill. A particularly emotional exchange with Judith MacLellan, Gene’s widow and Catherine’s mother, proves most effective in conveying the need to bring conversations of mental illness out into the open as she recalls choosing to avoid the conversation with her children. She rationalizes as equal parts discomfort and uncertainty of how to address the topic.
Clarkes lets Catherine do the talking as the film forgoes conventional narration and pieces together audio excerpts from conversations that the younger MacLellan has with her father’s peers while archival footage presents images of Gene and the MacLellan family. Even when Clarkes shows the chats—which are too personal and intimate to call “interviews”—the camera often focuses on Catherine’s reaction as she listens to stories from friends and family who didn’t recognize Gene’s distress. Cinematographer Kyle Simpson zooms in extremely close on MacLellan and other subjects as they discuss Gene and mental illness, and the doc effectively pulls viewers into tight proximity. The intimacy of the film draws one into the conversation, emphasizing the words and emotions of the discussions to create an open and inclusive atmosphere for confronting mental illness.
The music proves especially effective as The Song and the Sorrow culminates with Catherine taking the stage and performing her father’s songs while sharing her own experience with mental illness with the audience. As she draws out the sorrowful notes of “Songbird” that sound so deceptively sweet in most other recorded versions, the doc encourages audiences to find empathy with those who suffer from mental illness and confront it head-on. The words are all there in “Songbird”—one just needs to listen closely to recognize the pain.