A brief but haunting musical legacy is paid fittingly brief, lyrical tribute in veteran Dutch documentarian Jeroen Berkven's featurette "A Skin Too Few," which beautifully evokes the enduring appeal of English singer-songwriter Nick Drake -- whose death in 1974 came long before any significant audience had discovered his work.

A brief but haunting musical legacy is paid fittingly brief, lyrical tribute in veteran Dutch documentarian Jeroen Berkven’s featurette “A Skin Too Few,” which beautifully evokes the enduring appeal of English singer-songwriter Nick Drake — whose prescription-pill overdose death in 1974 came long before any significant audience had discovered his work. A cult following has been building ever since: In one week after a recent Volkswagen commercial used his song “Pink Moon,” sales of his catalog outpaced those logged during his entire lifetime. A moody tone poem as much as it’s a straightforward biography, 50-minute pic kicked around festivals for two years until San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema gave it a U.S. theatrical premiere — one that proved a surprisingly big draw. Roxie Releasing now is handling Stateside distribution.

Born in Burma, Drake grew up primarily in picture-perfect English hamlet Tansworth-in-Arden, then attended Cambridge, where his musical interests soon overtook academic ones. He headed to London during the heady era of 1969-71, forging a recording career via contract with Island Records. But those efforts attracted little attention, despite some critical acclaim and collaborations with such luminaries as producer Joe Boyd (interviewed here) and musician John Cale.

Part of the problem, no doubt, was the terminally shy Drake’s unwillingness to tour — his sole concert gig was so traumatic (the club crowd basically yakked over his very quiet musicianship) that he never performed live again.

Disenchanted, Drake became more withdrawn, eventually retrenching to his parents’ home under heavy medication for murkily diagnosed mental illnesses, including severe depression. His final album, titled after the song “Pink Moon,” was delivered to Island in a plain brown wrapper without foreknowledge or identification. No one knows whether his death was accidental or a suicide.

Most extensive testimony in pic comes from surviving sister Gabrielle Drake, a professional actress who’s a bit offputtingly polished in emotive presentation. But “Skin” wisely spends most of its time matching Drake’s curiously timeless music –defined by the performer’s airy voice and crystalline acoustic guitar picking — with exquisite, impressionistic images including the gorgeous English landscape outside Drake’s childhood bedroom. Drake, who remains very much a cipher, was never filmed; the only views of him are via some handsome stills. Naturally, pic’s soundtrack is suffused with tracks from his three albums, with particular emphasis on “Five Leaves Left.”

Tech aspects are ideal in this daringly slow-paced (at times it recalls Terrence Davies’ early features) yet pitch-perfect homage, with Vladas Naudzius’ color photography quite gorgeous.

A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake

Production

A Roxie Releasing presentation of a Luijten-Macrander Prods. production for Humanist Broadcasting Foundation. Produced by JB Macrander. Directed by Jeroen Berkvens.

Crew

Camera (color), Vladas Naudzius; editor, Stefan Kamp; art directors, Edwin Reinold, Anet Wilgenhof; sound, Eddy de Cloe. Reviewed at Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, May 7, 2002. (In Nashville Independent Film Festival.) Running time: 50 MIN.

Cast

With: Gabrielle Drake, Joe Boyd, Brian Wells, John Wood, Robert Kirby, Keith Morris, Paul Weller.

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