Popular as the genre may be for awards-hungry actors seeking a multi-disciplinary showcase, rare is the musical biopic that serves its subject quite so generously: The music, in particular, often winds up playing second fiddle to backstage biography so familiar as to practically be formula. “Song of Granite,” on the other hand, leads with the fiddles in all senses: Pat Collins’ echoing, elegiac evocation of the spirit of Irish sean nós singer Joe Heaney is most interested in his haunted vocal gift, letting the troubled life that weathered it show through only in glimmers between the gorgeous songs.
Beginning conventionally if austerely as a lyrical portrait of the artist as a young boyo, Collins’ richly monochrome film gradually splinters into elusive, non-linear shards of memory and music, unified by its stony monochrome imagery and a fragile, folky soundtrack — as quietly radical a musical biopic as we’ve seen since Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There,” and bearing a clear slow-cinema influence that is challenging but not oppressive. Ireland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (much of its admittedly sparse dialogue is in Gaelic) is being released Stateside by Oscilloscope Laboratories after a low-key but warmly received festival run; no familiarity with Heaney, who passed away in 1984, is required to bask in the film’s cultivated, cloudy melancholia, though it’ll resonate most deeply with audiences in the global Irish diaspora.
In a film of otherwise painstaking construction, it seems an odd oversight to let the many Gaelic-language compositions that permeate “Song of Granite” go unsubtitled: They cast and color the film’s mood exquisitely enough to be understood by suggestion, but complete access to their language would deepen some viewers’ connection to a film that isn’t so much a study of one musician as it is of an entire, time-threatened musical culture.
For Collins, his second narrative feature — albeit heavily infused with his experience as a docmaker — serves as a formal and thematic bookend to his impressive 2012 debut “Silence,” which examined the rural Irish landscape through the eyes (or ears, rather) of a sound recordist fixated on human absence; “Song of Granite,” meanwhile, amounts to a sonic exploration of Ireland and its people, a communal history of hardship, dispersion and exile carried by its multiple singing voices. At the center of it, however, Heaney remains a lone, restless, ill-fitting figure, equally adrift on home turf, in London or in New York City, where he settled later in life. Portrayed alternately as a shy child (a stern, compelling Colm Seoighe), as a middle-aged everyman (Michael O’Chonfhlaola, himself a celebrated traditional singer) and as an ornery old-timer (Macdara Ó Fátharta), he becomes fleetingly knowable as a character only in song — when, as he reflects in voiceover, “you are alone for those couple of verses.”
The young Heaney is introduced roaming the grassy, ever-overcast valleys and shingle beaches of his Connemara birthplace on Ireland’s west coast, caught in such textured, tactile detail by cinematographer Richard Kendrick that you can almost sense cold dew on the screen. A son of stoic working-class parents, his voice is slow to emerge, prompted by elder-led village gatherings of singing and storytelling that Collins patiently recreates by scant firelight — a nod to ancient oral tradition subsequently paralleled in scenes that introduce recording equipment to the group setup.
There’s scant biographical exposition here, just music that naturalistically marks Heaney’s coming of age, whether he’s performing for a crowd or, as a young laborer, singing idly to himself as he builds a stone wall. Later, a flash of archive footage of the real-life Heaney in concert caps the film’s more-varied-than-expected musical tapestry, elegantly sewn through by Delphine Measroch and Guido Del Fabbro’s original score, not to mention the sharp, selective sound design: A recent Oscar winner for his work on “Arrival,” Sylvain Bellemare wonders with a more intimate, but no less intricate, soundscape.
Once Heaney leaves County Galway for the bright(er) lights of Glasgow, London and finally America, “Song of Granite” virtually abandons narrative form, mixing archive footage and the interview testimonies of family and acquaintances into the stream, alongside with the dramatized reflections of the older Heaney — all while major life incidents, such as Heaney’s unannounced abandonment of his wife and her subsequent death, are mentioned only in passing, or even as second-hand gossip. Yet there’s a unifying purpose to this seemingly scattered approach, underlining the essential unknowability of a retiring figure who left principally his art as evidence of a jagged, unstable life.
It’s fitting, then, that the film’s most focused, sustained movements are those that center entirely on performance. For minutes at a time, in fixed, still takes, Kendrick’s camera takes in the impassioned singing not just of Heaney, but of those in his cultural orbit. Indeed, the single most riveting scene in “Song of Granite” observes an unnamed woman’s full rendition of folk standard “The Galway Shawl” in a pub — a slow storm of feelings playing out on her clenched face. At moments like this, Collins’ filmmaking takes on the intensity and intentness of prayer; pure and concentrated in its devotion to far more than one man, “Song of Granite” feels a very full, stirring sermon.