Lian Lunson’s new documentary, Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You is both a filming of the tribute concert to Canadian singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010 at the age of 63, held at New York’s Town Hall in 2011, and a painful and sometimes joyous act of remembrance and reminiscence from her family members. If you are not aware of Kate McGarrigle, and her voluminous career, the NY Times obit I linked to has all of the pertinent details, but really what you need to do is seek out her songs, co-written with her sister Anna McGarrigle, and sometimes her other sister, Jane. The McGarrigle sisters were mainstays in the Canadian folk scene for forty years, played Carnegie Hall seven times, and wrote songs recorded by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and many legendary others. They were the hosts of a popular radio show, called “The McGarrigle Hour” (an album of some of that material is available on iTunes). If you haven’t heard of Kate McGarrigle, then her songs are probably the best songs that you’ve never heard before. So seek her out. The lyrics are witty, intelligent, complex, and the sound is often quite mournful, nostalgic to a level of deep sadness. They sound like the sweet songs played in old-time dance halls, ragtime tinny and elegiac, redolent of summer romances long past and sweet memories made sad by all the changes that have come about. Kate McGarrigle’s two children with ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III, are Rufus and Martha Wainwright, who, obviously have had much fame themselves. (Martin Scorsese used Loudon, Rufus and Martha as the three separate nightclub singers for three separate eras in The Aviator).
Lunson elegantly balances the concert footage (in color) with black-and-white footage of the interviews held with Rufus, Martha, and others, about Kate’s life and music. There are also grainy super 8 home movies, of Kate singing, playing badminton, hanging out with Loudon, playing with her babies. This may seem like a disjointed approach, but Lunson finds the flow of all of this material. The concert flows into the interviews, which then flow into the home movie footage, and what you end up getting is a full portrait of a woman who was much loved (both professionally and personally), but also a piercing sense of the hole her absence has left in the lives of those who loved her. This is a powerful film about grief. There are times, in rehearsal, or onstage, when Rufus is overcome by tears. At one point, before singing “Kitty Come Home”, Anna McGarrigle says to the Town Hall audience, “This might be tough to get through.”
The artists who performed in the Town Hall tribute concert are fabulous and diverse: Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Teddy Thompson, Krystle Warren, Jimmy Fallon (who plays the spoons as well as the washboard). They pair up, they do solos, trios … sometimes the stage is crowded with people harmonizing, and sometimes it is almost bare, with a lone figure, or two.
The camera work is beautiful, one of the most challenging aspects of filming a concert. When do you need a long shot? When do you need to go close? Sometimes Rufus is in the foreground, in focus, and you can clearly see Martha, standing at his side, a bit out of focus, sending her support and love to her brother. Having both faces in the frame, the siblings, adds to the sense that what we are seeing is an act of collective grief and remembrance. Then, other times, as with Teddy Thompson’s absolutely riveting solo, the camera stays in one position, with only Teddy in the frame. I feel like I didn’t breathe once during his entire number, it was so powerful and painful and sweet.
Throughout the film, Lunson occasionally fills the frame, or the edges of the frame, with what looks like blurry moving images of golden lights, as though it is Christmas decorations in the background, or the colored lights hanging around a summer gazebo. Festive, and yet sad, somehow, these golden lights, blurry, are indicative of the memory-aspect of the film. What we are seeing in the film is a recent concert at Town Hall, but the real story of the film is the flow of a woman’s life who is no longer with us. It felt to me like if I squinted hard enough at those golden lights they would come into focus, and there I would see beautiful images of a summer party, by a lake, people fiddling and singing and talking under the strings of golden lights. But no, the lights remain blurry. It was a beautiful and emotional motif, signalling the film’s overall mood, of memory, loss, grief, and joy in remembering.
I was in tears for the majority of the film. I walked out of there, exhausted, wrung dry, full of my own memories, my own thoughts about grief experienced, and how happy memories have to be re-hashed, told again, and again … The love is palpable, pumping through that concert footage, sometimes too intense to even look at directly. I wondered, at times, if Rufus would be able to make it through this or that of his mother’s songs. But then I thought: But that’s what artists do. Since the beginning of time, artists have been called upon to rise to the occasion in a moment of national grief or loss, and write a sonnet, or an ode, or whatever, so that the public will have a catharsis, and a place to put their mourning. It’s one of the things artists must do. How much more challenging if it is your own mother … and yet how right as well. Even the sight of Rufus trying to hold it together, so that he could make it through the song without losing it, is an artistic act.
Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You is playing at The Film Forum through July 9.