As popular as the genre is for award-hungry actors looking for a multidisciplinary showcase, rare is the musical biopic that serves its subject matter so generously: music, in particular, often ends up playing the second practically being a formula. “Song of Granite”, on the other hand, leads with the violins in all directions: the echo and elegiac evocation of the Irish spirit sean nos Singer Joe Heaney is most interested in her haunted vocal gift, letting the troubled life that has overcome her shine through only in the glimmers between the gorgeous songs.
Beginning conventionally albeit austere as a lyrical portrait of the artist as a young boy, Collins’ richly monochrome film gradually shatters into elusive, non-linear fragments of memory and music, unified by its stony monochrome imagery and a fragile, folkloric soundtrack – also calmly radical a musical biopic as we’ve seen from Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” and carrying a distinct slow-cinema influence that’s difficult but not oppressive. Ireland’s entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (much of its dialogue, albeit sparse, is in Gaelic) is released in the United States by Oscilloscope Laboratories after a low-key but warmly-received festival; no familiarity with Heaney, who died in 1984, is necessary to delve into the cultured and murky melancholy of the film, though it will resonate most deeply with audiences in the Irish diaspora worldwide.
In an otherwise laboriously constructed film, it seems odd to leave the many Gaelic-language compositions that permeate “Song of Granite” without a subtitle: their language would deepen some viewers’ connection to a film that is not so much. a study of a musician as of an entire musical culture threatened by time.
For Collins, his second narrative feature – though heavily imbued with his background as a docmaker – serves as a formal and thematic bookend for his impressive 2012 debut “Silence”, which examined the Irish rural landscape through the eyes (or ears, rather) of a sound recorder obsessed with human absence; “Song of Granite”, meanwhile, is a sound exploration of Ireland and its people, a common history of hardship, dispersion and exile carried by its multiple singing voices. At the center of it, however, Heaney remains a lonely, restless, ill-adjusted figure, also adrift on his own back ground, in London or New York, where he settled later in life. Performed alternately as a shy child (a stern and convincing Colm Seoighe), as an ordinary middle-aged man (Michael O’Chonfhlaola, himself a famous traditional singer) and as a boring old man (Macdara Ó Fátharta), he becomes fleetingly knowable as a character only in song – when, as he reflects in the voiceover, “you’re alone for these two verses”.
Young Heaney is featured walking through the grassy and ever-covered valleys and pebble beaches of his birthplace of Connemara on the west coast of Ireland, captured in tactile detail so textured by cinematographer Richard Kendrick that you can almost feel the cold dew on the screen. The son of stoic working-class parents, his voice is slow to emerge, prompted by village gatherings of song and storytelling led by elders that Collins patiently recreates in the light of the fire – a nod to the ancient tradition oral which was then paralleled into scenes that introduce recording equipment for group setup.
There are few biographical exhibits here, just music that naturalistically marks Heaney’s coming of age, whether performing in front of a crowd or, as a young worker, lazily singing to himself- even as he builds a stone wall. Later, a flash of archival footage of Heaney’s real life in concert crowns the film’s more varied-than-expected musical tapestry, elegantly stitched by Delphine Measroch and the original score by Guido Del Fabbro, not to mention sound design. clear and selective: Recent Oscar winner for his work on “Arrival”, marvels Sylvain Bellemare with a soundscape that is more intimate, but no less complex.
Once Heaney leaves County Galway for the (more) bright lights of Glasgow, London and finally America, “Song of Granite” practically abandons the narrative form, mixing archival footage and interview testimony of family and acquaintances in the stream, alongside the dramatized reflections of former Heaney – while major life incidents, such as Heaney’s unexpected abandonment of his wife and her subsequent death, are only mentioned. ‘by the way, or even like second-hand gossip. Still, there is a unifying purpose to this seemingly scattered approach, underscoring the essential unknowability of a retired figure who has mainly left his art as evidence of a jagged and unstable life.
It is therefore normal that the most concentrated and sustained movements in the film are those that focus entirely on the performance. For minutes at a time, in still takes, Kendrick’s camera captures the passionate vocals of not only Heaney, but those in his cultural orbit. Indeed, the most captivating scene of “Song of Granite” observes an unnamed woman’s full interpretation of the folk standard “The Galway Shawl” in a pub – a slow storm of feelings unfolding over her contorted face. At times like this, Collins’ cinema takes on the intensity and intensity of prayer; pure and focused in its devotion to more than one man, “Song of Granite” is a very comprehensive and moving sermon.