“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” asks W.B. Yeats in his famous poem Among School Children. That same subtle question also seems applicable to any examination of a film like Love Shines, Douglas Arrowsmith’s documentary about Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith.
For if you step back far enough from the detailing and psychological nuances of this meticulously crafted and highly absorbing film and try simply to place it within its genre, you can see how Love Shines could be taken for just another music bio-documentary, a well-wrought study of the trajectory of a musician’s progress from the beginning of his career up to the present: humble origins flowering inexorably into some rock-apotheosis of the moment.
But that isn’t what has happened to Ron Sexsmith (not so far anyhow) and so that isn’t what happens in Arrowsmith’s tender, affecting film either.
“Love Shines had to be a subtle essay over a long period of time,” Arrowsmith told me during a recent chat about the film. The long period of time began in 2003, when Arrowsmith, who is nothing if not tenacious, shot his first footage of Sexsmith, poignantly poking around his childhood home on Galbraith Street in St. Catharine’s Ontario (“…that’s my old room right up there, for what it’s worth….”), remembering the box of 45rpm records that appears to be the only legacy he has from his largely absent, truck-driver dad, reminiscing about being inattentive at school and knocking up his girlfriend, marrying her (at age 19), and trying hard to be a better father than the one he had. All of which tends to paint Sexsmith as a rather boringly ordinary, limited kid—a sweet, self-effacing loser with a guitar.
But all through the film you keep hearing his songs (Secret Heart, No Help at All, etc.), and hearken to the witnesses to Sexsmith’s surprisingly underappreciated abilities as a haunting melodist and searching lyricist (“…In every nowhere town there are somewhere dreams….”) and the texture of the film begins to change. “He’s greater than his doubts,” says his friend and singer-songwriter Leslie Feist. “People who do get the Ron bug become fanatics,” says teacher and music critic Rob Bowman.
I confess I haven’t contracted the Ron bug yet, but, thanks to Arrowsmith’s compelling film, I have now come to see him as a kind of musical everyman, a tender-hearted, sensitively put-together incarnation of the war between yearning and disappointment, ambition and self-doubt. Ultimately, Sexsmith is progressively fleshed out (and he does literally become more and more fleshy and rotund as the film proceeds through time) into a figure of genuinely tragic proportions.
He does have successes—and Arrowsmith’s cameras are everywhere to capture them. He is in the audience for Elvis Costello’s Spectacle at the Apollo Theatre in New York in 2009—and backstage, where fellow performer Sheryl Crow has to physically prop Sexsmith up before he goes on (“she probably knew I was nervous,” he says, in a moment of characteristic understatement).
“I don’t think I come off as ‘confident’ on TV,” he tells Arrowsmith later. “I had got to the point,” he admits, “where I’d feel I didn’t want anybody to look at me!” Which is not too helpful for a performer.
Arrowsmith is at a concert produced in L.A. in 2006 by Kiefer Sutherland’s Ironworks Studio (Kiefer introduces him as “one of the most beautiful singer-songwriters in the world”) and is there to record Sexsmith’s touchingly, embarrassingly hangdog introduction to Secret Heart: “This song has been covered about 10 times and I’m still not rich—I don’t understand it.” And he’s at the St. Catharine’s home of his mother and step-father when Sexsmith wins the Juno in 2005 for Songwriter of the Year. He films Sexsmith’s 2006 Massey Hall concert beautifully (his daughter is there, backstage, but, not, to his great disappointment, his son)—a concert that may someday be looked upon as the highpoint of his career.
But most importantly, Arrowsmith is with Sexsmith when he pulls up to producer Bob Rock’s Sage & Sound Studios in Los Angeles in October of 2009 and puts himself totally in the hands of this legendary maker of mostly hi-voltage rock albums (Sexsmith’s wife, Colleen Hixenbaugh, confides earlier to Arrowsmith that the Bob Rock connection made her “uneasy.” “And I figured he cost a pretty penny,” she adds). Which he did.
“I had to do something radical and drastic,” Sexsmith says. “I needed to change my head.” And Bob Rock is just the guy to do it. It’s the Ron Sexsmith–Bob Rock sessions (which both begin and end the film) which become a sort of film-within-the-film and, given Rock’s half-testy, half-paternal ability to listen and then to dispense what seem little more than career bromides, come nevertheless to crystallize the very shape of Sexsmith’s troubling entrapment in endless self-denigration.
Bob Rock is clear enough straight off the mark: producers don’t wave magic wands, he tells Arrowsmith. “They just make the best records they can.” And he does what needs to be done. He encourages Sexsmith all the time. He brings in great session players and wields the big board with the authority with which Glenn Gould played Bach. And Sexsmith gives it his best.
Their mission is to put together a demo album that will be the ticket to the big-time success that has always danced just out of Sexsmith’s grasp. “We’re just going to will it to succeed, Ron!” Rock tells him.
Would that it were so. Rock appears to admire Sexsmith’s abilities, but, as Feist puts it, affectingly, in the film, “admiration doesn’t have any weight for him anymore.” Sexsmith opens up to Bob Rock as if he were the father he never had and the dialogue sometimes gets so painful you entirely forget that Arrowsmith is there with his camera crew.
Sexsmith tells Rock, “I’m on stage, and I can’t open my eyes…I’m trying to make myself look skinnier….I’m really self-conscious….” Bob’s answer? “You’ve gotta overcome that.” He also offers my favourite self-help nugget in the entire film— “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
Words to live by. Sexsmith gratefully takes every suggestion Bob Rock offers him (key, tempo, arrangement, adding bridges, etc., etc.) And why not? Rock knows rock. But Sexsmith is so jumpy and needful, Rock’s carapace of coolness seems continually intimidating to him. He wants success so badly that at one heart-sinkingly awkward moment in the session, Rock says to Sexsmith that he has suddenly hit upon a “big sound”—which Sexsmith immediately mishears and misinterprets as Rock’s telling him this number is going to be a “big song!”
The hasty backtracking and recovery are painful to witness.
Basically Bob Rock had become a kind of Mephistopheles with whom Ron Sexsmith, the boy Faust, has at least entered into a pact, if not exactly sold his soul. How else could it end but tragically (the recording doesn’t do well, but that’s not what I mean)? In becoming what Douglas Arrowsmith calls “an empathetic, neutral surface,” Rock simply helps to bring out every self-doubt Ron Sexsmith harbours. For example, Rock says to Sexsmith at one point, “A lot of people sabotage themselves,” to which, almost before this dispiriting cliché has completely left Rock’s mouth, Sexsmith leaps in eagerly with “That’s me in a nutshell!” And it’s this acute, almost corrosive attentiveness of Arrowsmith’s that makes Love Shines —against innumerable odds—a really terrific film.