Film Reviews

Review: ‘Where You’re Meant to Be’

Scottish folk music gets a revamp: for better or for worse?


Where You’re Meant to Be
(UK, 75 min.)
Dir. Paul Fegan

VIFF features two docs about traditional music from the UK and the difference is as sharp and strong as the distinction between Scotch and Irish whisky. Scottish doc Where You’re Meant to Be features Aidan Moffat, Scottish “cult-pop raconteur” and former frontman for the band Arab Strap, on a road trip as he performs and reinvents folk songs. Irish hybrid Song of Granite, on the other hand, offers a feat of reinvention of its own as it charts an unconventional biography of late Sean-nós singer Joe Heaney. (Read the POV review of Song of Granite here.) Both films offer nods to the legacy and longevity of traditional music as it faces its potentially last generation of singers to carry tunes conceived long ago. The films are quietly stirring and sad in their own ways, and the differences in delivery give each film its own palette of tasting notes with which to savour the music.

The songs in Where You’re Meant to Be, like the tunes of Song of Granite, are traditionally performed without accompaniment. Audiences can decide if Moffat’s effort to give the Scottish odes a little pop is either blasphemous or inspired as he performs the songs in pubs and concert halls across the soggy nation. The doc considers Scottish identity beyond kilts and haggis as Moffat reinterpret the songs for contemporary audiences and urban attitudes. Director Paul Fegan generally provides the traditional tunes before Moffat’s modernizations so one may or may not appreciate the effort to make traditional songs get with the times.

Some of the songs trade boats for taxis, as modern means of transportation. Moffat rewrites others to turn them into drunken rugby anthems or bawdy ballads, while different folk songs let the artist use heritage music to speak to contemporary political concerns like gay marriage. Regardless of what you think of the quality of Moffat’s verses, he puts his heart into this endeavour giving folk songs a new life.

Changing a boat to a taxi, however, carries a lot of meaning for Sheila Stewart, Fegan’s other vocalist in his doc. The 79-year-old folk singer finds herself deeply troubled by Moffat’s endeavour. Moffat encounters Stewart during his travels and she doesn’t mince words about her feelings. She observes some outright misinterpretations of the songs and notes that their modernization erases their significance.

Stewart hails from a family of “travellers,” comparable to Scottish gypsies, who passed these songs along through generations as families put their experiences into ballads for the working class. Songs of drunkenness and abuse are soulfully beautiful as Stewart sings them for Fegan in a fine brogue, which holds up well at 79. Stewart even performs a ballad of domestic violence while skinning and butchering a rabbit in her kitchen—a great scene of documentary filmmaking that captures the quotidian experience a folk song extraordinarily well.

Stewart represents the last of a dying breed, as several characters note in the doc. These songs and the public performance of them—an act that invites future singers to carry the tunes—end with her, so Moffat’s tour of whisky-soaked folk music renovated for urban living, spits in the face of Stewart’s family, heritage, and legacy. The film is a fascinating study of cultural appropriation and misunderstanding as one sees the insult to Stewart’s cherished songs despite Moffat’s earnest intentions.

When she finally joins him on stage and shows the crowd how it’s done, Where You’re Meant to Be offers a fine swan song for these Scottish folk songs. The film poignantly reflects on the mortality of culture itself as cities and communities change and elements of heritage gradually fade away.

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VIFF runs Sept. 28-Oct. 13.
Visit VIFF.org for more information on this year’s festival.