Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Pat Collins on Song of Granite

There are many words you could use to describe Song of Granite – just don’t call it a biopic. “The thing with biopics is that I just don’t like them as a genre,” Pat Collins told me when the term came up in our conversation. “I can’t think of many that I really liked. I think Roger Ebert said something to the effect that biopics make every life the same and no matter whether it’s a singer, an actor, a president or whatever, every life comes out the same in a biopic. I suppose I wanted to avoid that, and I wouldn’t have started it if I’d felt I had to use standard biopic setups.”

So if Song of Granite isn’t a biopic, what is it? Collins’ film is a portrait of Joe Heaney, the man widely regarded as the greatest practitioner of sean-nòs, a form of traditional unaccompanied Irish singing. He was said to have a repertoire of over 500 songs stored in his memory, and he became a star in the American folk music revival of the 1960s, first at the Newport Folk Festival and then in various cities across the country, where he performed to sold-out crowds and was fêted by avant-garde composers such as John Cage.

Filmed in atmospheric black-and-white by Richard Kendrick, Song of Granite gives us a snapshot of various stages in this unpredictable life. The film unfolds in three distinct acts, first presenting Heaney as a child in Connemara in the 1930s before skipping ahead to his travels through the UK and US in the 1960s, and then catching up with him as an elderly man in America, reflecting on his past and his legacy. We get a sense of the overall shape of Heaney’s life by the end of the film, but how much have we really learned about him? Beyond the bare biographical details, Heaney has long been an enigmatic, elusive figure, and while some filmmakers might have been tempted to try and fill in the blanks, Collins felt it was important to stay true to this aspect of his character.

“There have been two books written about him, a documentary and now a feature film, but I can’t say that anybody really knows anything about him,” Collins says. “We know certain facts – he moved to New York, he worked as a doorman in Manhattan, he taught at the University of Washington – but we don’t know how he felt about any of that. There are some small revelations in his letters to people but I don’t know if he spoke to anybody about his wife and family, for example, because it was actually a shock to a lot of people that he was even married or had kids. I don’t think I’d presume to know what’s going on inside his head so I just couldn’t go down that route.”

Read the rest of my article on the BFI website