Film Review: Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle

Famous folk-rock family turn tragedy into celebration, with a little help from their friends.

A multi-generational dynasty of folk-rock royalty gather onstage to celebrate the late Quebecois singer Kate McGarrigle in the poignant music documentary Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You. Shot at New York’s Town Hall theatre in May 2011, this all-star concert is hosted by McGarrigle’s famous musical offspring, Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Their involvement should ensure the film has an appeal beyond specialist music-fan circles. An immersive experience shot in both lush color and crisp monochrome, it plays well on the big screen, where it deserves to be seen before its inevitable afterlife on home-viewing formats.

A national treasure in her native Canada, but more of a cult figure abroad, the Montreal-born McGarrigle died of a rare cancer in January 2010. She was just 63. Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You is full of pastoral ballads and poetic ditties she composed during her four-decade career, often with her older sisters and frequent musical partners, Anna and Jane. Some highlights from their back pages performed in the film include "I Am a Diamond," "Heart Like a Wheel" and "Talk to Me of Mendocino." Rufus also sings his own moving memorial to his mother, "Candles."

Sticking closely to the unshowy blueprint she established with her 2005 concert film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, the Australian-born director Lian Lunson shoots these performances in long, intimate, adoring close-ups. Rufus and Martha play host and hostess, flanked by Anna and Jane, plus a large background chorus of singing uncles, aunts and cousins. The TV comedian Jimmy Fallon, who guests on a more lighthearted number, jokingly compares the family to the Von Trapps. Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Antony Hegarty, Teddy Thompson and many more also share the music, while the Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje pays moving tribute to McGarrigle’s lyrical skills.

The only baffling absentee from Lunson’s family love-in is Loudon Wainwright III, ex-husband of McGarrigle, and father to Rufus and Martha. Torn apart by a bitter divorce in the 1970s, both parents and children alike have since vented their feelings in a series of vitriolic songs about each other, but they reconciled in later years. Once hailed as the “new Bob Dylan,” Loudon receives a glancing mention here and appears briefly in archive home-movie clips, but no more. According to the filmmakers, he simply was not available to perform at the show. While his presence is not essential, his absence still feels like a missing piece of the jigsaw, very much the elephant not in the room.

In stark contrast to the kinetic jump-cut editing style of most post-MTV concert documentaries, Lunson favors fluid long shots, single takes and tight close-ups. This old-school approach owes more to Martin Scorsese’s classic 1978 rock-doc The Last Waltz than the same director’s sense-blitzing Rolling Stones concert film Shine a Light 30 years later. The overall effect is anachronistic but graceful and engrossing, evoking some of the fuzzy analog warmth of the vinyl LP era. It also amplifies the slow-motion psychodrama unfolding onstage. Rufus, Martha and other family members perform several numbers with tears glistening down their cheeks, their private grief magnified to billboard dimensions by high-contrast monochrome.

Concert documentaries can sometimes be endurance tests for all but the most hardcore fans. But the broad range of voices, arrangements and personalities in Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You helps prevent the music from ever becoming too similar. Between numbers, Lunson also provides tonal variety with brief interview snippets, archive footage and poetic visual flourishes. She and the family even take the bold decision to include a fleeting single shot of McGarrigle’s body on her death bed, albeit in a tasteful and respectful manner.

It is not necessary to be a fan of McGarrigle’s music to enjoy Lunson’s film, which has the distinct advantage over most rock documentaries in its emotionally charged backstory. The final scene, in which Rufus and Martha recall the moment of their mother’s death, to a soundtrack of old family songs, could make an oak tree weep. But this is ultimately an uplifting and absorbing film about the healing power of music as a cathartic, communal, celebratory life force.
-The Hollywood Reporter