Film Review: SongwriterVery upbeat and very bland is this documentary about the biggest red-headed pop-culture figure since Lucy.
If ever one song defined a summer, surely it was Ed Sheeran’s 2017 “Shape of You.” Its irresistible rhythm, set to a distinctly African-flavored groove and instrumentation, with simple yet sexy lyrics, made it the most streamed song of the year, one of those big, instant-fun anthems with huge crossover appeal.
It turns out that the song was an afterthought—although a serious one, in commercial terms—on Sheeran’s album Divide, to offset the preponderance of ballads on the disc. This factoid is one of the rare actual nuggets of information you actually glean fromSongwriter, Murray Cummings’ capering, none-too-deep portrait of the artist as a young ginger rock star who, it turns out, is his cousin.
Family indeed runs strong in the gifted singer/songwriter’s life and work—and it is no surprise that the film paints a mostly very sunny portrait of the 27-year-old wunderkind, who showed an aptitude for music in earliest childhood in Suffolk, England. Filmed during the making of Divide, it purports to reveal Sheeran’s songwriting process—which, if the film is to be believed, is as easy and natural to him as breathing. Any creative blocks or interfering neurosese are never mentioned—he comes off as the anti-Kurt Cobain—and what we mostly get here are a few of the practically finished songs, rambunctiously performed for his circle of intimates, with a few tweaks captured by Cummings’ camera to finally bring them all beautifully together. After a while, the doggedly unprobing nature of the film becomes a tad annoying, as if just getting a backstage pass—however unrevealing—to its subject’s life and getting to hang vicariously with him and his crew is enough.
You never get any kind of clear picture of Sheeran the person, either. Family information is kept to a strict minimum, and his girlfriend, Sherry Seaborn, is glimpsed momentarily—they hold hands, and that’s about it. Apart from his impressively fecund song output and that cherubic mien which has made him the darling of the pre-teen set yet at times can also handsomely recall a marbleized Hermes, nothing truly sets him apart here from at least two generations of shaggy-haired, cargo-pants-and-pajama bottom-sporting, cigarette-puffing, guitar-strumming white boys. And, whether in Malibu or at home in Suffolk (with the obligatory tour through his old school) or aboard the Queen Mary (in a special recording studio), he is surrounded by a posse of similarly styled and behaving Caucasian lads, chief among them his shaggiest-of-all producer and homeboy, Benny Blanco, who occasionally manages to inject some sarcastic vinegar into the bland proceedings, poking fun at certain of Sheeran’s mannerisms.
You won’t hear anything about the various copyright-infringement lawsuits over his songs “Photograph” and “Thinking Out Loud” or dissent from any of the numerous non-fans that huge whiteboy success as his always sees to engender (see John Mayer). The one big fly in the ointment he gives voice to would seem to be the demands of his record label, which—in time-honored idiotic hack tradition—would have him repeat successful work from the past for that always shaky commercial guarantee. And this critic must admit some dismay at hearing Sheeran speak of his aspirations to become as big as Adele—the only other contemporary artist I can recall him mentioning in the film. Certain lesser songs of his—like “Perfect”—do reveal a troubling tendency toward that somewhat bloated syle of power ballad favored by the Big A and, heaven help us, the ever-lachrymose Sam Smith, and I really wish all songwriters would eschew the beyond-clichéd lyric usage of angels once and for all.