Making an album is a lengthy, back-breaking grind––a lot of sweat and tears and sleepless nights go into wrestling nebulous ideas into something worthy and palpable, a finished product that not only satisfies the artist’s vision, but also that of the record label, the critics, the haters, the fans, the superfans––the list goes on and on when you are as big and peerless as Ed Sheeran.
But director Murray Cumming’s latest documentary Songwriter, which played last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, demystifies the whole process with its heartfelt sincerity and intimate vignettes of a life that is more parts Joe Schmo than a rock star.
At this point in his career, Ed Sheeran is pretty much an iconoclast: He’s currently Britain’s biggest male pop star, has smashed multiple records, and enjoys being one of world’s best-selling musicians at only 27-years-old. Not too shabby, Ed. Although considering his high-profile status, his image is quite an anomaly in the world of pop, devoid of any bad-boy, gnarly, or chagrining elements that seem ubiquitous among many active (and past) male top-tier artists. Rather than play the part of the alpha-male, he opts for an everyman role, and it really does befit him––his persona is indubitably kosher, cuddly and sweet, impossibly normal for a pop star. When an artist reaches such a high-profile status, outside pressures multiply tenfold, and the trappings of fame can often push artists to brink of their mental limits, but it seems that Ed is able to handle expectations with poise and a smile on his face; nonetheless, even the most composed stars need a break from shinning once in a while.
“Where is Ed Sheeran?” asked a bright-eyed kid during the Q&A, his cutesy voice barely arriving to the stage even with the assistance of a microphone. The room filled with laughter. I mean, what an adorable question! Although I’m sure everyone was wondering the same thing. After all, he was in New York City that night.
“I think he was jet-lagged. He was in Tokyo and he was like ‘I’m not coming,’” responded Cummings. “Although he sends his regards,” the host chimed in.
There is one definite constant of Ed Sheeran’s life––it is one of perpetual motion, consisting of countless flights, endless tour cycles, interviews, PR stunts, and meetings with lofty executives. Yet Cummings chooses to forgo these public affairs and settles on divulging the songwriting process of ÷ from beginning to end, taking audiences by the hand to Abbey Road studios in one moment, by car to Ed’s hometown Suffolk in the next, and then by cruise ship across the Atlantic in another. Cummings is good at disappearing into the background, a key aspect of any successful documentary; you never want the subjects to feel as though a camera is there, otherwise, the illusion is broken. Overall, these scenes are well-stitched together and do a good job at presenting what Ed Sheeran is really all about: the music and nothing else.
It is clear from the film’s outset that Cummings doesn’t really know how a camera works, though the home-video feel to the cinematography fits well into the relaxed context of Songwriter. The film follows Ed like a fly-on-the-wall, capturing bits and pieces of his more human moments: pajama pants tucked into boots, messy bed-hair, morning coffee, puffy eyes. It is almost unsettling how normal Ed is, but that is also what lends the documentary its power. Ed is just like us, and he is probably wearing your clothes, driving your car, eating at your local diner.
The film features a cast of characters as colorful as any Hollywood drama or raunchy comedy, including songwriters Johnny McDaid, Amy Wade, Foy Vance, and Ryan Tedder. But my personal favorite was hit maker Benny Blanco, a less salacious, modern-day “Booger,” who provided the documentary with much-needed comic relief. That’s not to say that the film couldn’t stand on its own without him, but his loud and entertaining presence provided another dimension for viewers to engage with Ed’s story. Honestly, you could make a whole damn film about Benny, and I’m sure it would be flying off the shelves, or more accurately, be picked up by Netflix faster than you can say “greenlit.”
You get the sense that Cummings is quite faithful to his cousin. Songwriter never wrangles with or even discusses the politics or strife over Ed’s larger career; not everyone was a fan of “Galway Girl,” last year’s sonic equivalent of Marmite. However, to be as big as Ed, is to always be in the spotlight, and with that comes debate and controversy. I wasn’t looking for some over-the-top critical analysis of Ed Sheeran, but I craved something more, anything that furthered the conversation about him and his music even a little bit. The film felt too bias, too well-edited, and arguably propaganda-like. While Songwriter showed Ed endlessly writing down notes, strumming, singing, smiling, it lacked any bursts of passion, anger, or major frustration from the film’s protagonist. Tensions ran higher when Ed was adamant about his vision for “Shape of You,” but I simply can’t believe there weren’t more darker moments to the production of ÷. With that being said, the film provides a pretty credible portrait of Ed Sheeran––he is a normal dude with extraordinary talent and big dreams. Maybe we should just let him be that.
Songwriter premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February before hitting the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23. Apple Music just secured the screen rights to the documentary last week.