“For fans only” is a standard phrase critics use to briskly dispatch all manner of rockumentaries, though it’s so much a burn as a simple statement of the obvious. Who else but Ed Sheeran fans, after all, would have even a passing interest in seeing “Songwriter,” a cozy in-house study of the unlikely British megastar’s creative process, directed by his own cousin? To all appearances a nice enough bloke with a nice enough voice and a canny ear for a pop chorus, Sheeran is not the kind of mercurial or mystique-driven artist who can galvanize a truly riveting cinematic portrait: It should go without saying that this is not his “In Bed With Madonna” moment. Even by softer “Behind the Music” standards, however, Murray Cummings’ film is a cautiously peppy, unrevealing affair, showing little of the trial and tension that go into artistic creation — just the finger-snapping moments when it all comes together.
Despite its modest, technically dashed-off form, “Songwriter” may secure some theatrical distribution on the strength of its subject’s sheer scale of celebrity. It arrives, after all, nearly a year after the release of Sheeran’s third album “÷ (Divide),” which went on to become 2017’s biggest seller and scooped two Grammy Awards. But there’s an unavoidable ancillary feel to proceedings: For better or worse, it’s the kind of feature one can imagine being presented on one side of a DualDisc album edition, if only Sheeran’s primary demographic still consumed physical media. Either way, it’s an odd fit for a premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, where selections like Stephen Loveridge’s more ambitious pop-star study “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” only highlight the comparatively minor nature of Cummings’ project.
Sheeran, of course, remains on top the world regardless, looking beatifically down on his own creation. As “Songwriter” documents the process of writing “÷,” following him and a cheery crew of collaborators — permanently disheveled producer Benny Blanco most charismatic among them — from a kind of luxury musicians’ boot camp in Malibu to jam sessions at his home studio in Suffolk, England, nary a moment of disagreement or doubt makes it onto camera: Whether it’s the modernized Irish folk jig of “Galway Girl” or the molasses-thick, wedding-ready balladry of “Perfect,” song after song is built smoothly through from a spark of inspired riffing to a joyous group assemblage.
Only the most churlish of detractors would deny that Sheeran is one of his generation’s consummate pop craftsmen, but there’s something distancing about the way “Songwriter” portrays him as the casually unflappable artist in cargo shorts, with melodic magic in his fingertips: It’d be interesting to follow at least creative avenue here that doesn’t pan out, to glimpse Sheeran’s back catalogue of rejected or incomplete compositions.
Even some obvious angles on the songs that do make the cut are missed: We’re told that album closer “Supermarket Flowers” — played back in full, Cummings’ camera fixed on Sheeran’s pensive expression as he listens — is of profoundly personal significance to the singer and his family, but any further context is dodged. Sheeran’s guarding of his private life (his fiancée Cherry Seaborn is passingly glimpsed and unidentified) is entirely understandable, but with “Songwriter” equally vague on his artistry, the film is left with little to illuminate but his professionalism and general affability — neither of which will come as a surprise to fans and general onlookers alike.
The decision to focus the film expressly on Sheeran’s songwriting prowess is perhaps an astute one in the wake of copyright-infringement lawsuits over previous singles “Photograph” (settled out of court, with the suing scribes of the Matt Cardle song “Amazing” added to the songwriting credits) and “Thinking Out Loud” (a more contentious clash with the Marvin Gaye estate). It’s no surprise that these matters aren’t raised in “Songwriter”; indeed, even the credited interpolation from TLC’s “No Scrubs” goes unmentioned in a late section on last year’s all-consuming smash “Shape of You.”
That’s a shame, since it might be interesting to learn something in the course of “Songwriter’s” 85 minutes about Sheeran’s own musical inspirations: The only other musician Sheeran mentions at any point is Adele, and even then, perhaps tellingly, it’s only as a commercial pace-setter. Otherwise, there’s scarcely any material in Cummings’ dully devoted film to pull focus from its subject’s considerable achievements. “This is the peak of my songwriting and musical ability,” Sheeran says of the completed album. One suspects he’s speaking too soon; maybe in a decade, he’ll have more to tell us.