Gemma Creagh is bustin’ outta here with her review of Damien Dempsey documentary, Love Yourself Today.
As unbeknownst to us the pandemic loomed overhead, in Christmas 2019 documentarian Ross Killeen filmed a series of Damien Dempsey concerts in Vicar Street. For his fans – a mixed bunch spanning all ages and hailing from all walks of life – these yearly gigs are a pilgrimage of sorts. Due to the emotional release many achieve during Damien’s performances, they are often known affectionately as “The Church of Damo.” Through his music, the Dublin folk singer lends his distinct authorial voice to social issues, to loss, to love, and plays with a deep sincerity that often has attendees openly weeping as they belt out those lyrics.
But there’s nothing maudlin about Love Yourself Today. This is a warm, uplifting film and a love letter to Ireland’s troubled and wonderfully complex capital. The narrative is divided into sequences, each tackling a theme of sorts and told through the voices of very different subjects – all Damo fans, of course. Nadia is a young mother and a drug addict struggling with her sobriety having just left an abusive relationship. Packy is an athlete, a traveller who teaches the younger members of his community how to box. Old beyond his years, he laments over the mountainous difficulties he’s already had to face, and focuses on what keeps him moving forward; while Jonathan is an older recovering alcoholic, many years sober, looking back over his path to recovery and the sacrifices he made for his family.
While the gigs are certainly the main focus, Damien also opens up about his own life, sharing how violence almost led him to losing the thing he was most passionate about, his music. Walking through nature, Damien stresses the importance of positivity and gratitude, using his position as a relatively public figure to highlight the conversation on mental health.
Each of these subjects, all coming from such different perspectives and places in their lives, talk openly and honestly about their struggle, a testament to Killeen’s ability to build rapport, considering the entire documentary was shot over one month in December. Every segment is then punctuated, or rather elevated, by one of Damien’s powerful performances. The film’s aesthetic is strong and simple, bold black and white frame both the live music and the daily routines of the subjects. The sound mix is emotive and engaging; Damien’s gig and song’s crescendos elicit a well of feeling from the crowd, while the subtle, interpretive compositions of his hits fuel the smaller, more subtle moments.
As a genre, documentary serves a functional purpose. When done well, it can capture the mood and essence of a carefully chosen moment. It literally documents the lived experience of a generation before shifting influences change it beyond recognition. Love Yourself Today does exactly this; it preserves the experience of Dubliners and Damien Dempsey fans alike, not only presenting it to audiences further afield, but for the fans themselves.
As the country opens up and finally musicians can take their rightful place on stage in front of a crowd again, it’s the perfect time to reflect, recalibrate and celebrate. There’s a timeliness to the themes in Love Yourself Today that will resonate not just with fans of trad – but with anyone in need of a boost.
Love Yourself Today is in Irish cinemas from 5th November 2021.