This patient and luminous life-of-the-artist film freshens everything stale about its genre. The music of Irish folk singer Joe Heaney here is situated in the hard beauty of the land and village he grew up in, in the songs of birds and local balladeers, in hill and sea and timeless toil. Director Pat Collins shoots in black and white, sometimes in shadows and candlelight, fascinated not by drama but by milieu. The first third of his formally daring Song of Granite studies the soil in which Heaney flowered.
One lengthy, mesmerizing shot finds a tweedy fellow from the city sitting at a table with a portable recorder, capturing a song from a local singer. Behind them stretches a white stone building, with a door wide open to the left of the performer. Through that door we see a second doorway, on the building’s other side, and the grassy humped countryside behind it. As the song goes on, young Heaney (Colm Seoighe) appears in the weeds out past those doorways, lured by the old tune. He approaches, clambering over a low stone wall, then stepping inside and then outside again. When he at last sees what is happening, his life has opened up: Now he knows that the music he loves, the ballads we’ve heard him singing, can win the world’s attention.
Three actors play Heaney: Seoighe as a kid who finds pride and joy in tearing through the traditional verses, learning from a schoolteacher to open his mouth while singing wide enough to admit a hen’s egg; Michael O’Chonfhlaola as the wayfaring adult singer who has left his homeland and family in pursuit of success Ireland can’t offer; and Macdara O Fatharta as Heaney at something like peace at the end of his life, his regrets softened by his certainty that he will be leaving behind a legacy. (Heaney died in 1984; he is reputed to have collected and committed to memory 500 traditional songs, though the film version of his life is amusingly obstinate about never performing the ones he doesn’t consider glorious.)
The highlight, of course, is its musical performances, especially an extended pub performance sequence in which O’Chonfhlaola (and other singers) give vigorous life to the likes of “The Galway Shawl.” We see and hear the real Heaney in one welcome documentary sequence; Collins also includes real footage of everyday Irish life during Heaney’s lifetime, showcasing city scenes and the labor of miners. What lingers, though, after the credits, is Cooper’s silvery visions of the land near Carna, Heaney’s out-of-time village in County Galway: mists and heather, steep-faced hills, stony coasts. With little dialogue, you can sense the county and its culture shaping Heaney into himself, then pushing him away, then piercing his heart all the years he was gone.
Song of Granite
Directed by Pat Collins
Opens November 18, Film Forum