Save for a few childhood home movies, there exists no film footage of Nick Drake. A Skin Too Few, Jeroen Berkvens’s whispery portrait of the folkie mope-god, clocks in at a mere 48 minutes, and its brevity reflects not only a dearth of source material but the filmmaker’s reverential attempt to safeguard the enigma of his subject, who OD’d 30 years ago at age 26. Berkvens corrals a few semi-informative talking heads: producer Joe Boyd, a Cambridge buddy who reveals they smoked lots of pot, and sister Gabrielle, who, along with the imposing family manse in poshly pastoral Tanworth-in-Arden, serves as reminder of the Poor Boy’s hardly modest origins.
Checking off the bio points no doubt familiar to anyone with a battered Fruit Tree box set (and maybe even to those who know Drake chiefly as Volkswagen pitchman), Skin is less life story than luxuriant mood bath. The film leans on the sturdiest of soundtrack crutches—there’s almost no image that a Drake song couldn’t poeticize. Still, the patient, lovely shots of desolate villages and rolling green hills bespeak an intuitive connection with the music’s paradoxical magic, its shivery conflation of warmth and chill, intimacy and loneliness. In his boldest move, Berkvens takes us inside “Nick’s room”—interior reconstructed from old photos, the dramatic landscape outside captured by the Dutch director with light seemingly imported from a Vermeer. (One nifty bit of wizardry even suggests the nocturnal illumination of a pink moon.) The most haunting moment—from beyond the grave, but not who you’d expect—comes when Gabrielle plays a tape of a piano composition by their mother. The Molly Drake original turns out to be a sinuously ethereal quasi-Renaissance Faire air; the family resemblance is uncanny and unspeakably moving—it’s as if you’re hearing her son again for the first time.