Edinburgh International Film Festival has long been fertile ground for movies about musicians, and this year’s edition offers sonic perspectives from all over the globe. Starting at home, we’re proud to host the World Premiere of Heading West: A Story About a Band Called Shooglenifty. Don Coutts’ lovingly assembled documentary pays tribute to Edinburgh’s own acid croft pioneers Shooglenifty, whose uplifting fusion of local folk and global beats continues to flourish, despite the untimely death of fiddle-playing frontman Angus R. Grant.
Heading 275 miles southwest on our whistlestop tour, we arrive in Glenageary, County Dublin: birth place of Sinéad O'Connor. Ireland’s fearless, chart-topping pop iconoclast is the subject of Nothing Compares, an empathetic new profile from Belfast-born director Kathryn Ferguson. Focusing on the turbulent period (1987-1992) when O’Connor faced down a misogynist media’s unforgiving spotlight, the film has been a major draw on this year’s festival circuit, following its Sundance premiere in January.
Canada is our next stop. Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song tells the story of Quebec’s songwriting legend through the lens of his best-known number. The original 1984 version was overlooked at the time, Cohen’s label Columbia refusing to release parent album Various Positions in the USA, as they felt the record was commercially unviable. “Hallelujah” began its unlikely journey to “secular hymn” status in 1991 when it was covered by John Cale. His arrangement was then popularized by the late, great Jeff Buckley and eventually became a staple of mainstream culture, heard everywhere from Shrek to American Idol.
Cohen’s Canadian brethren The Band were the subjects of 1978’s The Last Waltz, which screens at EIFF in a new Criterion Collection restoration approved and overseen by director Martin Scorsese and the group’s guitarist Robbie Robertson. A spectacularly cinematic document of the Toronto quintet’s epic farewell performance at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, this classic concert movie features guest appearances by Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, The Staple Singers, Bob Dylan and a notoriously wired Neil Young.
From the seriously famous to the celebrity-phobic, Anonymous Club is an intimate portrait of the brilliant but shy Australian indie rocker and “anti-influencer” Courtney Barnett, whose witty way with a guitar-spiked tune has taken her from Melbourne’s underground scene to the Grammy Awards. Shot on 16mm over three years by her long-time video director Danny Cohen, the film is further enhanced by Barnett’s candid audio diaries, plus a star turn from her cat.
Time travelling from 21st century Oceania to Europe in 1969, we’re alternately mesmerized and shocked by French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis’ hour-long mini masterpiece Rewind & Play, which repurposes archival performance footage and revealing interview outtakes from an episode of Parisian TV programme Jazz Portrait. Piano titan Thelonious Monk is the guest, his heroic presence and otherworldly playing pointedly contrasted with the show’s tone-deaf white studio host, who mistranslates Monk’s answers to patronizing questions.
Our penultimate destination is the Netherlands, for Licht – Stockhausen's Legacy: a colourful, dual-purpose documentary by Oeke Hoogendijk, in which she simultaneously tracks the Dutch National Opera’s brave (some would say foolhardy) attempt to stage Karlheinz Stockhausen’s titular magnum opus, while also probing the late avant-garde composer’s polyamorous lifestyle. Licht is a 29-hour opera cycle involving choirs, dancers, synthesizer-augmented orchestras and a string quartet playing from helicopters. In addition to being the father of electronic music, Stockhausen also fathered several children – now grown up and somewhat disgruntled – who are interviewed here.
Finally, let’s travel back to Scotland to mark the 20th anniversary of Lynne Ramsay’s hypnotic, homegrown drama Morvern Callar. Adapted from fellow Scot Alan Warner’s award-winning debut novel, music is foregrounded in this elliptical movie, which was partly filmed in Oban. Its evocative soundtrack of electronica (Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada) and experimental rock (Can, Stereolab) perfectly complements one of Samantha Morton’s greatest performances.
Listen to some of the artists mentioned in this article, with this handy Spotify playlist!