Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Folk singer Kate McGarrigle died in 2010 at the age of 63, leaving behind a terrific body of work and a talented family of musicians. In 2011, in a New York City concert hall, a concert was performed in her honor. Singing her songs were her son and daughter, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, as well as her sister, Anna McGarrigle. Other guests included Emmylous Harris, Norah Jones, and, among many more, Jimmy Fallon, singing their hearts out in memory of the one who wrote the songs. The event was captured on film and put together by director Lian Lunson. The resulting concert documentary, Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle, isn't much of a movie, but it sure is a great concert. It's not often that I find myself wanting to turn off a movie's picture and just listen to the soundtrack instead.

The music, so tenderly written, so expressively performed, is transporting and enjoyable. It's all of a rather similar tone and cadence, a folksy wit and carefully strummed instrumentation calling out with clarity that the songs are from the same career, sprung from the same mind. I suppose the disclaimer here is that if it's not the kind of music you go for, it'll get repetitive fast. I happen to love this style of music, so I was willing to go with it. Several old favorites are trotted out. Her kids sing "First Born," with its charming lyrics about a first-born son: "That first born son is always the one / The first to be called and the last to come." Jimmy Fallon sings "Swimming Song" - "This summer I went swimming / This summer I nearly drowned" - which fits his persona well. Rufus, one of many singing "Prosperina," one of the last songs she ever wrote, has tears rolling down his face as they circle the haunting refrain "Come home to mama."

The songs are lovely and the mood is appropriately mournful. It seems like a good concert and a moving tribute to a mother, musician, and friend taken away by cancer. But as cinema it's uneven and clumsily packaged. The stage is shot simply for coverage in footage that switches between color and black and white arbitrarily. Context is largely absent, with sparsely commented upon home movies of Kate's younger years spliced into the concert footage. Lunson is in the same instance doing too much and not enough to material that's inherently powerful and entertaining. Either give us the events plain and simple unadorned or give us the full biographical context. Stuck hesitantly between, the movie feels overlong and unsure of its purpose.

That said, the star of the show is Kate McGarrigle's music, strong and powerful, and the friends and family breathing new life into her words and melodies. There's not much need to see the movie, but it's sure worth hearing. Available now on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, XBox, Playstation, Google Play, Youtube, and SundanceNow, it'd be worth renting a stream just to listen. I'd recommend the soundtrack album over that, but on the chance you want to see the concert, the movie's your only option. Besides, with just the sound you'd miss the emotion on the faces of the singers, smiling through tears, keeping their mother's, sister's, friend's music alive. There's a devastating anecdote snuck in at the last minute in which Rufus and Martha tell of their mother's final moments alive, surrounded by family, playing an old recording of her children as children singing a Christmas carol she had taught them. She died as she lived, with love and song.

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