Maven's Nest

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- Colm Seoighe, Micheal O Chonfhaola, and Macdara Ó Fátharta, each as Joe Heaney in Song of Granite - courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

How the pure expression of Irish traditional song can rest heavy on an old soul

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Pat Collins
Produced by Alan Maher, Jessie Fisk and Martin Paul-Hus
Written by Collins, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde and Sharon Whooley
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories 10/2/2017
Ireland/Canada. 104 min. Not Rated
In English and Irish with English subtitles
With: Colm Seoighe, Mícheál Ó Chonfhaola, Macdara Ó Fátharta and Jaren Cerf

Song of Granite uses an impressionistic, avant-garde style to capture the essence of Joe Heaney, considered Ireland’s greatest 20th century singer in the sean nós ‘old style’. To plumb how a contemporary apostle develops an old soul, director Pat Collins travels in black and white along three periods of a restless life, as a child first absorbing ancient Irish oral history and culture, as a wanderer through Irish émigré communities of the British Isles, then into exile in the United States where the 1960’s folk revival celebrated his authenticity.

Young Joe Heaney (Colm Seoighe) scrambles and dances around the picturesque houses and shores of Connemara, accompanying his fisherman father Padraig Ó Heanaí (Pól Ó Ceannabháin) and joining him on tunes out on his boat. The boy is as mesmerized as the film audience by a gathering of elders, where myths and stories are re-told, and songs shared. Fans of the series Outlander will recognize the mesmerizing voice of Gaelic vocalist Griogair Labhruidh.

Voice-over interviews recall his youthful marriage with children – and their abandonment, while archival images from Philip Donnellan’s The Irishmen: An Impression of Exile, from the BBC in 1965, show the tough laboring jobs that drew many Irish away from rural villages. Joe is played in his 30’s and 40’s by singer Mícheál Ó Chonfhaola, who in 2013 won the Corn Uí Riada, Ireland’s biggest sean nós singing competition. In a Glasgow pub song exchange, his full rendition of Heaney’s signature ballad is so powerful that he has to grip a man’s hand to stay earthbound.

Moving on with so many of his countrymen to America, there are archival images of Heaney in New York from an Irish public television documentary and footage of his performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, where he was hailed by the Clancy Brothers. But as portrayed in his ‘60’s by Macdara Ó Fátharta, Heaney is a cynic, mocking the popularization of Irish culture into music hall ditties and shamrock loyalty, including digs at the Clancys’ interpretations. Working menial jobs like a hotel doorman, he is cut-off from the environment that nurtured him and recalls poems of longing for return, though he died in Seattle in 1984.

Cinematographer Richard Kendrick’s gorgeous imagery combines the avant-garde looks and slow pacing of Ken Jacobs’s urban perambulations and Nathaniel Dorsky’s and Andrew Noren’s studies of seasons and shadows, so the audience can imagine what is on Heaney’s mind. Ironically, the same creative team’s previous film Silence (2012) focused on a sound recorder in exile who returns to Ireland seeking the very purist natural aural environment devoid of man, so devoid of the culture that touched Heaney so deeply. In the recent informative documentary Extraordinary Ordinary People featuring the National Endowment for the Arts’ Masters of Traditional Arts, folklorist Alan Govenar elicited how pressured they feel carrying on a tradition through their art that embodies the spirit of their ancestors. Their interviews fill in the explicit motivations and drive that Collins eschews for emotional truth.

The questions left unanswered were left by Heaney. Song of Granite is an unusual selection as Ireland's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Its beauty and heartbreaking sense of lost connection to the past expresses much more than the usual corny sentimentalism that Heaney scorned.

Originally posted 10/2/2017

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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