WITH EYES ON THE TRUTH AND ROCK’N’ROLL STYLE: Filmmaker Lian Lunson

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The Australian-born documentarian follows up her acclaimed treatments of Willie Nelson and Leonard Cohen with Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You:  A Concert For Kate, about the late singer Kate McGarrigle.

 BY DENISE SULLIVAN

 As a girl growing up in Australia’s Ned Kelly country, Lian Lunson’s bond with rock’n’roll’s marquee names was sealed by the larger than life images projected by the Beatles, the Band and Bob Dylan in films like Let It Be, The Last Waltz and The Concert For Bangladesh. “Those people and those movies were legendary—they were big characters, but they weren’t molded pop artists, they were more truthful,” she says. “When you watch the old films, you get chills just watching the people.”

 The subtleties and hidden truths in the stories of musicians are of deep interest to Lunson whose own casually elegant and intimate music documentaries, include, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man and the more recent, Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You:  A Concert For Kate, in tribute to the songs and life of singer Kate McGarrigle (it opens at New York’s Film Forum this week on June 26—details at www.FilmForum.org).

 “Finding that truth in people in this day and age, making these people larger than life, is part of the joy of making a music documentary,” she said, during the film’s run at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Indeed for dedicated music fans, Lunson’s films are like a window on to the world of rock’n’roll cinema as it should be: Close up and personal but epic, too. Her Cohen film concerned the elder artist at the point of rediscovery and took on the surreal air of a traveling carnival, while Sing Me The Songs…is a post-mortem, artful meditation on the cycle of life and the grieving process (McGarrigle died of a rare form of cancer in January 2010).  Steering away from the film devices in “making of” and mythmaking promo hype vehicles, Lunson instead moves in for a slow-paced unfolding that places emotional performances at center stage, leaving the songs to tell the story of a committed artist whose family life was interwoven with her art.

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 Martha and Rufus Wainwright provided the still photos, vintage film clips and memories of their mother which Lunson edited with film she shot at a tribute concert at Town Hall in May of 2011. Featuring a cavalcade of stars including McGarrigle’s sisters Jane and Anna (her primary singing partner) and friends Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Jimmy Fallon, Antony Hegarty, and the Wainwrights among the vocalists and accompanists, Lunson insisted everyone dress, as if for a special occasion.

 “I looked at the footage on YouTube of the concert for Kate in London and everyone was dressed in jeans and hoodies and I said ‘No, no, no, we have to dress, this an event.’” The Wainwrights both had access to a treasure trove of costume jewelry, and all of the performers including the men, were asked to chose a piece to wear, which lent an air of sparkle to an otherwise somber evening. 

 “I like ritual and I wanted it to be special,” says Lunson. The idea of rock’n’roll swagger hearkens back to Lunson’s romance with its  ’60s and ‘70s film classics, in particular, Leon Russell as himself in Mad Dogs and Englishmen. “He brought a sense of grandeur to things—with his top hat—and you could feel that it was an event, that each moment he was onstage was something extravagant or different and beautiful,” she says. “People have no idea of the majestic quality he radiated.”

 As for the film’s technical aspects, the handheld, cinéma vérité style was a bit of a happy accident for Lunson who likes tight close-ups of her subjects.

 “We got into the theater, and couldn’t set up the cameras until right before we were about to shoot,” she explains. “I had asked the cameramen for an incredibly close lens and when I looked through it wasn’t close enough. At the last minute, I got him to get one of the camera operators to put a camera on his shoulder—he didn’t have the gear for it—and that was the angle we shot everything from. Had I planned it, the theater never would have let me do it.  But rather than say, we just have to go with the lens he brought, we improvised and we ended up getting what I wanted.”

 Working intuitively and going with the moment, Lunson finds that as one of the small percentage of female directors working in Hollywood and specifically in music documentary, she’ll get the odd bloke who wants to challenge her know how.

 “It’s not their fault:  Often camera people are trained to do things a certain way…to move, come in, come out, and I have to tell them, you know what, just stick your hand there and don’t take it off, I don’t want you to move. As a director, knowing what it is you want and don’t want is important, otherwise, you fall into the hands of professionals,” she laughs. “They want to help you and they want it to be good, but you have to be firm and say, ‘You have to trust me, this is exactly what I want and if you are seeing something else, I don’t care.’”

 A product of the self-taught, D-I-Y punk generation, Lunson came of age in the same Australian scene as Nick Cave whose esthetic is similarly wild outback and acutely sensitive and poetic. In the ‘80s she worked as an actor, then transitioned into making music videos in the ‘90s. An assignment to shoot a promo clip for Willie Nelson in Ireland resulted in an impromptu jam with U2, for whom Bono had written “Slow Dancing,” but which Willie had never gotten around to cutting. Longtime friends with the band, Lunson caught the action and made a clip (below) with just two cameras.

Lunson describes her process of choosing projects as “an organic thing.” Working with Nelson happened naturally, and her film on him, Down Home, evolved from their collaboration. When it came time for the documentary about Leonard Cohen, whose music she got to know as the after hours soundtrack in punk rock days, generational peers like Cave and U2 were naturals to appear in it. She became acquainted with the Wainwrights during the Cohen film, which is how Rufus came to reach out to her: Sing Me The Songs… simply revealed itself to be next in the order of things.

 “I was in the midst of trying to get a narrative feature film made and put it aside.  As a filmmaker, you spend 24/7 on these projects and you really immerse yourself in them. You’ve got to know that spiritually and emotionally, you will have grown. It was a real honor to be asked to do something like this.  The first thing Rufus did was sit me down and show me Kate’s computer with pictures of pretty much the last year of her life.  It affected me very deeply.” 

 One of the revelatory images Lunson included in the film was a photo of McGarrigle on her deathbed.  “That picture was there for a reason.  I think that Rufus and Martha felt it should be a part of sharing the whole experience. I think it’s a testament to Kate that they did that; so many people are left with those images when they lose somebody, but they made the choice to open it up and I think it’s a very brave thing, something that will help people,” she says.

 The presence of Loudon Wainwright (Kate’s ex husband and the Wainwrights’ father) other than in photographs, was a noticeable absence. “It was no big thing; he wasn’t available. He was with Kate when she died and was very much involved—he did the concert in London–but I was making a film with Rufus and Martha. There are other films to be made—that’s a film all in itself.”

 With her feature film, The Boom Boom Room now ready be developed further and a couple of other dream music projects in the queue, for now, the director from the Australian outback shall remain best known for documenting the lives of two legendary Canadian singer-songwriters, old enough to be the grandparents of contemporary music fans.

 “There’s a responsibility to document them,” she says. “I found that when I took the Leonard Cohen film around, what struck me was that the people who were most changed from it were the young kids. Now, everything is so styled, but where is the spark of the real person? I would listen to Leonard Cohen’s dialogue in my headphones at night before going to sleep, hoping to find that moment.”

 “I look at some really talented contemporary performers, and wish they would put all the styling away.  No matter how good you are, there are all these layers in front of the talent. The Beatles never had stylists or ‘people,’ it was who they were,” she says.

 “This was such an emotional film to work on and the honesty was in the performances.”

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 Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert For Kate

Screens June 26-July 9 at Film Forum in New York City (with an introduction by Rufus Wainwright on June 28).

  Denise Sullivan is an arts and culture reporter and author of several books on rock’n’roll. Visit her at DeniseSullivan.com

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