Cinema Review: The Swell Season

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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

15A

89 mins

The Swell Season is released on 6th December 2013

The Swell Season  – Official Website

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Songwriting and Performance Programme in the Factory

Glen-Hansard3-1024x577
Leading Irish songwriters and performers Glen Hansard, Mik Pyro and Steve Wall have been confirmed as mentors for a new songwriting and performance programme in the Factory on Barrow Street this September. Joining Glen, Mik and Steve are Mark Greaney from JJ72, Colm Quearney from LiR and director Shimmy Marcus (SoulBoy / Good Cake Bad Cake).
The 2-week workshop will allow up-and-coming singers, songwriters and performers the opportunity to work closely with some of Ireland’s most established names in music, culminating in an industry showcase in The Factory’s famed Studio 1, which over the years has hosted performances from such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, U2 and David Bowie to name just a few.
Applications are now open by emailing a cover letter along with a Soundcloud link to music@thefactory.ie

For more info on the course check out www.thefactoryie
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‘The Swell Season’ with Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova of ‘Once’ to open in US Cinemas in October

(Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard in The Swell Season)

Filmmaker Niall McKay talks to the makers of the new documentary that follows Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova after their Oscar® win.

‘The thing about Once is that it won’t happen twice,’ the film’s producer David Collins is reportedly fond of saying. A new documentary about Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová following their Oscar® win contradicts that. Beautifully filmed, emotional and well crafted, The Swell Season is one of the big hits of the Tribeca Film Festival.

With Once, director John Carney had both the wit and the good luck to capture Hansard and Irglová falling in love. The Swell Season’s New York-based directors, Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis captured the couple falling out of love. Filmed during the couple’s world tour from 2007–2009 the film also features footage form their concerts. Certainly, lesser filmmakers would have missed the magic but credit is also due to Hansard and Irglová who bare all (in one skinny dipping scene – quite literally) and allowed the camera to capture some of their most intimate moments. Hansard’s parents also had a part in the film giving it a charm and intimacy rarely seen in a music documentary.

Niall McKay sat down with the film’s co-director and editor, Nick August-Perna, and co-director and producer Carlo Mirabella-Davis.

Niall: So let’s start with the genesis of the project.

Carlo: I was teaching film class at the New York Film Academy and Glen was one of my students. One day he was telling me about this strange odyssey that he and Markéta were about to embark on. We thought that it might make a good documentary, so we asked them. They were into the idea, and they let us come along for the first tour, which turned into three years of following them all over the world and shooting their songs and their lives.

Niall: How did Glen come to take a film class?

Carlo: Glen loves films, he’s a big fan of Werner Herzog. Fitzcarraldo is one of his favourite movies. He just thought that it would be fun to take a film class and try to direct some short films. He’s a really good director. He directed a couple of great short films in New York.

Niall: How did you get them to reveal so much of themselves on camera?

Nick: To be honest I don’t think any of us had a clear idea of what we were embarking on. Our process was very hands off. There was no manipulation. There was no changing the circumstances to create anything that would be good for the camera. We had to have a lot of patience. Glen and Markéta were very interesting to watch. They wear their hearts on their sleeve, they’re very emotional people, they’re very thoughtful people. Honestly, you turn the camera on them and you’re going to have a very interesting movie

Carlo: We spent a lot of time off screen just getting to know them. We became friends. But it took at least a year for them to get comfortable with the camera. Eventually they forgot the camera was there. Nick was doing sound, Chris was on the camera, and I had two LED lights in my hands.

Niall: The core scene in the film is an argument they have in a Czech cafe. Did you know at that time that you were capturing their break-up?

Nick: Their real-life love story is very intriguing for a lot of reasons. But we did not want to go into the film with any preconceived idea about this being a love story. However, if you’re asking did we capture the moment when they broke up, that’s for the viewer to decide. There are some very personal moments in the film that anybody who has been in a relationship or been in love can relate to. There’s all the exhilaration of being in love and there’s all of the sadness of falling out of love.

The scene in the Czech coffee shop, for example, was a scene that we had earned. We got to the point where they had great trust in us and we were able to disappear into this Czech crowd at a cafe. It’s a scene that fully exemplifies the tip of film we were trying to make where the style comes together with the content.

Carlo: A lot of people have said that you forget you are watching a documentary in that moment, and that’s the best thing anyone can say to you as a documentary filmmaker.

Nick: Sometimes, you just get lucky and you have the camera on when those moments happen.

Niall: Where there any other happy accidents?

Carlo: One day we followed them into Glen’s room and Markéta began cutting Glen’s hair and it became this incredible scene that was so intimate and so interesting. And then at the very end of it, Glen picked up the guitar and started singing.

Niall: What camera did you shoot on?

Nick: Our cinematographer, Chris made some great choices in the beginning to use cinema lenses with an adapter on a Panasonic HVX. There’s no documentary-style zooming. It’s beautiful steady camera work.

Niall: The film is also in black and white. Actually, I thought you shot on 16mm.

Carlo: Well, that’s what we wanted. Once had a documentary feel, and we wanted our documentary to have a cinematic or narrative feel like Pennebaker’s great film about Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back.

Nick: yes, but also we decided that we wanted to be very close. There are wide shots of course, but we liked the intimate feeling of being very close and letting Glen come in and out of frame.

Niall: What about sound?

Nick: We used a boom, because we wanted it to sound like a feature film. I discovered, this Schoeps mic, it was just unbelievable. It’s like a surgeon’s knife.

Niall: How did you record concerts?

Nick: We took a tap off the sound board into the mixer which was plugged right into the camera. Sometimes I boomed also, because if you just go through the board it can have an empty or vacuous sound. Then we mixed it down to the camera. It worked. We were able to do a 5.1 surround sound mix.

Niall: So about the edit – how many hours of footage did you shoot?

Nick: We had 200 hours but to be honest there were two scenes that I edited right away and that really got me pumped. One was the hair-cutting scene, and the other was a scene that I cut with Glen and his father and mother at his home in Ireland.

That gave us a compass. It was a personal film. And then we used a series of bulletin boards and scene cards and notes and transcripts and passed them back and forth. It was probably four months before we found the film, it was gruelling at first.

Niall: And what did you decide was the arc?

Nick: The relationship, the tour and Glen’s family was the heart to it.

Carlo: There’s also the limelight and the nature of ambition and the double-edged sword of success.

Niall: Who financed the film?

Carlo: It was a shared endeavour between us and the record label.

Carlo: But this was a really low-budget film, we were living on the tour bus with the crew. There were no hotel rooms and when we were in Ireland, Glen put us up in his house. We were sleeping on the floor, so it was very much an intimate and by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of shoot.

Niall: You weren’t tempted to go to the Irish Film Board for money?

Carlo: Well, we were. They were wonderful but it was just a case of timing and we were just too busy making the movie to sit down and write to people and apply for money.

Niall: Well, thanks very much, and I wish you all the best with the film.

The Swell Season opens in US cinemas on October 7th 2011  in LA and October 21st in New York.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland #138 Autumn 2011.

Fore more details on its US release visit http://www.7thart.com/Home

 

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