Cinema Review: The Swell Season


DIR: Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis • PRO: Carlo Mirabella-Davis • DOP: Reed Morano • ED: Nick August-Perna • MUS: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová • CAST: Catherine Hansard, Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová

This documentary will be unlikely to disappoint music-lovers and fans of either The Frames or Swell Season, or the solo artists behind these groups, as it is an accomplished film of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s world tour, after their 2008 Oscar win for best original song with ‘Falling Slowly’ from the film Once (John Carney, 2006). The Swell Season has all the essential elements of any music documentary, good sound and beautiful camerawork, plenty of live performances and backstage footage, combined here to create a storyline detailing the romantic relationship, and its decline, between this folk-rock duo.

The film might also be of interest beyond these musicians’ fanbase. The rockumentary has become pretty much essential to any established rock band these days and often functions as one of the tools that promote the star-image essential for commercial success. By providing access to live performances, backstage and behind-the-scenes action – the rockumentary can affirm a band’s authenticity within a monolithic industry that separates commercially focused “popstars” from pure rock and indie “artists”. The Swell Season is such a documentary, which places folk-rock duo, Hansard and Irglová, firmly within the indie end of this scale.

The filmmakers, Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, rely on a direct cinema style by marrying the live performances with extensive backstage footage, through black and white cinematography, and with a number of talking-head interviews peppered throughout, including some wonderful contributions from Hansard’s parents. There are direct and indirect similarities to Dont Look Back, D. A. Pennebaker’s iconic 1967 documentary of Bob Dylan’s England tour. But this is a different era and a different paradigm and folk-rock singer-songwriters just don’t have the massive cultural and political impact now that they did then. For this reason the question of hubris cannot be avoided, and one can’t help but wonder to what extent the musicians are complicit in this construction of Hansard as another Dylan. For just one, out of many possible examples, the film is littered with shot after shot of Hansard with his guitar standing onstage, alone, in a pool of light and facing an indistinct audience (these shots use almost exactly the same type of lighting and framing as similar shots of Dylan in Dont Look Back). While this is something of a convention in rockumentary, the reference to the Pennebaker film seems rather heavy-handed here because the backstage social and political debates that dominated the Dylan film are completely absent from this one. It is a way of creating a particular type of image for Hansard that puts him centre-stage in this film. We always, for example, see him going onstage alone to resounding applause, whereas Irglová seems to slink on quietly a few moments or even minutes later, sometimes even after Hansard has seemed to invite her there. Such shots are just one of many techniques the filmmakers use to construct Hansard as the primary individual creative agent behind Swell Season. This is a fairly typical trope of music documentary, in line with a male-centric tradition in which musicians are talented-but-tortured men, who rise to fame solely through their unique charisma and exceptional talent. In this respect the film just narrowly avoids becoming a hackneyed platitude wherein the tortured male singer-songwriter has transcended past hardship to achieve widespread acclaim…

What actually saved this rockumentary from such formulaic cliché was Irglová’s unassuming and reticent presence throughout. The film in general positions her somewhere between backing singer and Hansard’s girlfriend, she is shown predominantly in a supporting role, slightly more of an active participant than as the artist’s muse, but only just. In the opening scenes she cuts his hair and later we see her sweeping up the hair from the floor with a towel, so that she is introduced to us in the role of a domesticated wifely carer, his helpmeet. Her presence appears to be calm, whether edited as such or as a faithful record of the tour, it is impossible to tell. Their “argument” for example is a quiet and calm discussion, unlike any argument that most nineteen year olds would have, and indeed she often comes across as the most mature of the pair. Otherwise the camera mostly follows Hansard as the frontman, as is the rock tradition, and we see Irglová following behind, catching him up or waiting on the sidelines. Although we see their collaboration in song writing the focus is on him as her mentor and the main creative force behind their work. Backstage we see her isolated among groups of men, looking mildly bewildered or struggling to be heard. Her resistance to playing the part of celebrity seems to be largely dismissed by the group of men around her, we hear of her youth and inexperience in contrast to Hansard’s years of experience as a musician. Yet in spite of all of this she prevails in her resistance to playing this part that is laid out for her, and her presence in the film is very definite and very strong.

Whether intentionally or not this documentary did inspire some thought about the place of women in the music business, especially women artists and performers. Irglová is not your typical female music star, which is very refreshing and interesting to see, particularly in the light of recent deliberations about women performers (apropos open letters to Miley Cyrus among other current debates). Although the film proposes a number of contrasts, in which the jaded rock ‘n’ roll male ego makes space for a youthful anima, where celebrity and creativity are understood in terms of strife and drama or alternatively as a simple pleasure to be sincerely celebrated, it does not travel far enough. There is a sense that this romantic relationship could have prompted some critical exploration of how both male and female artists struggle to find a place within this behemothic entity that is the music industry; and I can’t help but feel that the filmmakers missed an opportunity to explore a very relevant and very current story.

Eileen Leahy


89 mins

The Swell Season is released on 6th December 2013

The Swell Season  – Official Website


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