It All Begins With a Song Review

It’s not very often I get directly approached to review a film. A few times I’ve received a message about a film that might have already been in circulation for a while, but not reached a large audience, and that doesn’t really make sense to write about from my perspective, but I’ll always do a bit of research and reading before ultimately deciding on whether to cover it.

So, this brings me to this film, a documentary about Nashville songwriters, which the distributors contacted me to take a look at, seeing as I don’t get many requests in the first place, and I haven’t covered a documentary in a while, I thought I’d give it a shot.

There was another reason though, and that was the subject matter. As someone who’s fancied themselves as a writer, seeing a film about songwriters intrigued me, especially ones from such a rich and diverse setting as Nashville, legendary in itself as the home of country music, as well as some of the finest songs ever written.

As a music fan, my taste differs wildly; I have been known to enjoy a country tune, more than likely from a bygone era of ‘outlaw’ country, names like Johnny Cash or Willy Nelson, musicians who have a sense of danger to them, and that was reflected in their music. It isn’t my favourite genre of all time, but I do admire it, despite it losing its edge somewhat in modern times.

With this film promising coverage of multiple eras of songwriters, including people who have written for Elvis or Bob Dylan, right up to those who write for P!nk or Bruno Mars, there was a wide spectrum of topics and subjects to choose from.

For the most part, the film employs a ‘talking heads’ style of presentation. For those unfamiliar, this is a style of documentary that includes multiple interviews cut together, of a person sat down talking about the subject, the way the film is shot only showing their upper body, hence the nickname ‘talking heads’ it’s a popular method for documentaries such as this.

The problem with this style of presentation is its prevalence in the sphere of film. Think of a crime documentary you might have seen, or some kind of documentary on a classic album or artist, and I’m willing to bet that it is a ‘talking heads’ style product. What the challenge is then, is finding a way to make your version of the ‘talking head’ picture stand out.

Given its subject, this film does well on this front, mixing up the well-worn trope of mixed interviews with samples of songwriters performing their songs, which lends a certain intimacy to the interactions, the style shifting slightly to accentuate the change in tone, it works really well for getting a sense of how the people at the heart of this story work, and how the songs come to be.

The thing about songwriters as a topic though, is that most of them don’t tend to be the famous ones, no matter how numerous they might be, this has two effects on the movie.

Firstly, it shines a light on these under appreciated people who put their soul into the words that might one day come out of your radio, telling their story of how they moved to Nashville with nothing but a hope, just to one day have another artist record their song. Secondly, and conversely, it makes the film quite vague and unfocused.

People come and go, their names merely fleetingly mentioned and it’s hard to keep a grip on who’s who, or what they’re talking about. A lot of the film revolves around the filmmakers asking how they write songs or what they wrote it about, which is a good topic if you’re focusing on one song or person, but with this general approach it leads to a lot of people telling a lot of similar stories, with very little connecting them.

Despite its lack of subject focus, I do feel like the film comes from a genuine place of affection, both for the writers and the songs they produce, it just never seems to have the time to find the really interesting stories. Perhaps it would have been advisable to use this topic as a TV series, covering one songwriter per episode, rather than bundling in as many names into 90 minutes as possible?

Its runtime is actually another sticking point, as I feel the film would have had a bit more time to breathe with 15 or 30 more minutes, the prevailing feeling I got was that this film was only scratching the surface, like there was a great reservoir of potential stories to be discovered, but we barely broke the ice. There are a few really great stories in here, for sure, but I feel like there were more waiting to be told.

Despite these flaws and general lack of focus, I did enjoy hearing from the source about how songs we might have heard numerous times on the radio, and as I say, it’s nice to see some spotlight being shone on those who generally work behind the scenes. Maybe the documentary might work better for someone who’s a more devout fan on country music, as the focus on that might also turn away casual viewers, going for a broad approach leaves it feeling spread a bit thin.

All in all then, some interesting moments, let down by a lack of focus and breakneck pace, as well as not mining for more interesting stories from those available. Still very watchable, but could have been a lot better.

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