After “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” Los Angeles-based Aussie helmer Lian Lunson tackles another of Montreal’s great songwriters in the concert-film-with-extras format in “Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle.” The docu offers ample proof of the talent — and talented offspring — of McGarrigle, who died in 2010, with her children, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, hosting two musical memorial evenings in New York, captured here with an intimacy that partly makes up for the pic’s middling technique. Music-focused fests and broadcasters and McGarrigle-clan fans will be the film’s most vocal lovers.
The concert footage was filmed at the Town Hall in New York in May 2011, though it’s not clear from the film that the event took place over two nights, and Lunson made the odd decision to not include any footage of the audience, further heightening the sense of an intimate event. One of the few giveaways otherwise is the high volume of closeups of the performing singers and guests, often led by or paired with informal hosts Martha and Rufus; these are shot from unflattering low angles, with the faces often partly obscured by microphones, indirectly suggesting the lensers had to work from uncomfortable positions to avoid obstructing audience sightlines.
With a few exceptions, the material performed was written or co-written by McGarrigle, who penned a lot of it with her sister Anna, who also performs here (a third sister, Jane, also sings, as do several other members of the extended family). At the insistence of Rufus Wainwright, a lot of the songs are more offbeat or unknown, such as a beautiful early number written by the McGarrigle siblings for an unproduced musical.
Guests during the event include not only other vocalists such as Norah Jones, Krystle Warren, Justin Vivian Bond and Emmylou Harris, but also less obvious picks such as Jimmy Fallon, who brings some humor as well as a good singing voice to the proceedings; and Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, who quoted McGarrigle in his book “Anil’s Ghosts” and here reads an extract of his work.
Throughout, the film cuts to rehearsal footage, short snippets of interviews, and videoclips and photos from the McGarrigle family archives, turning a simple concert film into a memorial event that reflects not only the work of Kate the artist but also Kate the person. Still, some auds might find the frequent closeups of a teary-eyed Martha Wainwright a little too intrusive in this very public display of private mourning (a fleeting photograph of McGarrigle on what seems to be her deathbed is equally borderline).
The quality of Lunson’s non-show material varies, and though she seems to separate the two aspects of the film initially by showing onstage performances in color and private moments in black-and-white, a la Madonna’s gold-standard concert film “Truth or Dare,” this clear distinction is abandoned in later reels. This gives “Songs” an unevenness that doesn’t seem to stem from clear artistic choice, resulting in a slightly rambling quality.
Screening reviewed had some focus issues, but sound mix was decent.