Thursday, June 7, 2012
Sing Me the Songs that Say I Love You (2011)
Canadian songwriting legend Kate McGarrigle died of a rare form of cancer in 2010. The following year, her children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and her sister Anna, together with other family members and fellow singers, gathered in New York City for a concert in her honor. They performed songs—mostly hers—and remembered her as a great artist and influencer of artists, taken too soon. The event was filmed, and Sing Me the Songs that Say I Love You is the result.
If this summary is enough to pique your interest, then consider it my recommendation. Sing Me is a concert film, made for fans of McGarrigle’s work, and if you’re one of those fans, it will satisfy you. If you’re not a fan, you might find yourself wanting more than it provides. But more on that later.
The stage for the event is minimalist and black, but many of the singers on it are dressed colorfully, glittering in outfits that recall, for some of them, performances given several decades earlier. The audience is never shown. The Wainwright siblings, on the younger end of a cast that includes veterans like Emmylou Harris, sing most of the numbers, and speak in several pretaped vignettes interspersed between the sets.
We’re told of McGarrigle’s illness, which she fought for some time, though the declines were steep. We’re given a peek, through still photos and reminiscences, at the family dynamic that produced the talented Rufus and Martha. McGarrigle’s last hours are recalled, and the recollections are moving ones.
Of McGarrigle’s greater influence as a singer-songwriter, less is said. Much is implied—celebrity performers at the event include Jimmy Fallon and Norah Jones; while author Michael Ondaatje gives a reading. The list of thank yous in the film’s end credits is immense and the names on it, impressive.
We are assured that the singer will live on, through archival footage of her work; through covers of her songs by artists like the ones assembled here; through the reverence of her family and friends; and even, we might say, in her daughter’s face. During an early number, director Lian Lunson films Martha Wainwright singing beneath an inset photo of her mother, and the resemblance—at least from that angle—is startling.
Sing Me is deliberately sad. The camera lingers long on Rufus and Martha as they sing, tears running down their cheeks. Vignettes focus heavily on the depth of the loss, with one speaker remarking how fresh the grief felt once he heard a particular song performed at the concert. Most of the songs we hear are about love and wistful memory, though McGarrigle’s themes surely ranged much wider. Fallon’s number, though hardly inspired, is a welcome bit of comic relief.
Still, Sing Me isn’t grim, or morbid; just melancholy. The vigor with which the singers perform is what elevates it. They’re a mixture of ages, styles and persuasions, and they’re united in purpose.
For me, the appeal of the film wasn’t McGarrigle’s songs; it was learning how she sung them. Ondaatje recalls how the singer’s breathy delivery of a key line in one song elevated its poetry. Later, we see archival footage of a complete performance, delivered when McGarrigle was quite young. It’s in black and white, and the singer is alone onstage, with her guitar. It’s clear from this clip how much lyrics mattered to McGarrigle—to hear her sing this song is also to hear her act out its words, enriching them greatly. She had a quiet, insistent charisma. Of her two offspring, I believe Martha more closely mirrors it.
Rufus is something else—a more buoyant, and flamboyant, entertainer with a bigger, brassier voice. The contrast is interesting. And at one point, late in the film, we almost wonder how deep it goes.
In the last of the taped vignettes, we see Rufus and Martha together in a room, reflecting on their mother’s last hours. Rufus is large in the foreground; Martha, small and hunched behind him. The brother does most of the talking; describing, among other things, the pain Martha felt at having to leave her mother before she died. No further explanation is given. While Rufus talks, we watch Martha react—sometimes uncomfortably. She interjects, almost furtively. The scene ends with the two embracing, but it follows a cut. And in this embrace, Martha’s face is entirely obscured behind Rufus.
In a film filled with emotion—honest enough, but always on-script and in tune—this moment seemed like something else. It seemed true in a different way.
It’s hard to relate to a celebration of something you don’t know well—and I don’t know Kate McGarrigle’s music well. But I do know that Sing Me will be warm entertainment for fans of a music legend taken too soon. It’s a thanksgiving for the years of music they had, sung with a tone of regret for the years denied.
Where to see Sing Me the Songs that Say I Love You:
The Canadian premiere of Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You screens on Wednesday, June 13, at 9 p.m., part of Luminato & TIFF Go to the Movies. The film will be followed by a Q&A with members of the McGarrigle and Wainwright families, including Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Anna McGarrigle.
The sixth edition of Luminato, Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity, takes place from June 8 to 17, 2012.