SXSW Film Review – Song of Granite
Song of Granite
Joe Heaney was an Irish singer who specialized in traditional Irish folk music. Born in 1919, Heaney was shy at a young age. He started singing at five years old but did not sing in public until he was twenty. However, he developed a keen skill for it, and his success allowed him to travel to places such as England, Scotland, New York City, and then finally settling in Seattle, where he passed away in 1984. Some reports state that he memorized over five hundred traditional Irish folk songs, most of which he learned as a youth.
I’ll admit to you: before I saw Pat Collins’ Song of Granite (2017) I knew absolutely nothing about Heaney or his music. But while watching Collins’ retrace Heaney’s life (he takes directing duties and cowrote the screenplay with Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride and Sharon Whooley) I got a sense of how much of an influence he was to Collins and to his fellow countrymen. The music – which is sung acapella and in a slow, melancholic rhythm – means a lot to the Irish people. Often, Collins lets a song unfold in its entirety, with the crowd in dead silence taking in every note.
This is not your usual musical biography. Unlike a documentary with numerous talking heads or a biographical narrative that takes the usual clichéd steps, Collins chose to take a more unconventional approach. Shot in gritty black and white, and incorporating real footage of Heaney along with reenacted scenes featuring actors, Collins takes a contemplative look at Heaney’s life, music, and his deep connection to Irish culture. This aesthetic will not appeal to everyone. The pacing is languid, and there isn’t a “plot” in the traditional sense pushing the narrative forward. Collins jumps into different moments of Heaney’s life, from his youth to his adult life as a recording artist and into old age, reminiscing on the past and wanting to reconnect with his people. Heaney is portrayed by three different actors (Colm Seoighe, Mícheál Ó Confhaola, Macdara Ó Fatharta) along with grainy video footage of Heaney himself.
Because of the look and feel of the Collins’ aesthetic, Song of Granite takes on an almost dreamlike quality. One moment we see Collins as a kid helping his father fish along the water, next as a grown man working as a doorman at an upscale hotel, and then as an elder gentleman telling stories to an unnamed woman (whom I presume is his daughter/granddaughter). This is less Walk the Line (2005) and much more like The Long Day Closes (1992) in how it takes these brief glimpses of time and adds them together to get a sense of a person’s entire life. It’s a risky chance to take, especially if Collins’ intention was to introduce Joe Heaney to a wider audience. The style will test some viewers’ patience, especially if they are new to this kind of filmmaking.
The strength of Song of Granite is not only in the admiration Collins clearly has for Heaney, but for his love and admiration of Ireland altogether. This is as much about the country as it is about the singer. People and places have a texture all throughout. From the wide-open spaces and tall mountains of the countryside, to the streetlights and alleyways of the city, Collins allows the culture to speak for itself. A small scene of Heaney stacking rocks seems almost symbolic, giving us a bit of insight into his days as a youth. And the people remain as a constant source of support and encouragement. Most of the other actors are never introduced, often quiet in a scene, but they’re vital to film’s overall impact. They represent the reach that Heaney’s music had. When Heaney sings at a pub, he does so while holding another man’s hand almost instinctually, and once he’s done the man kindly offers Heaney a drink. Collins even allows time to feature other singers to perform. It’s obvious that the music operates as a sense of pride for those featured here.
I admired Song of Granite much more than I “enjoyed” it. It’s a meditative film – Collins takes Joe Heaney and uses him as a launching point to dive into larger themes such as identity, memory, patriotism, aging, and death. He examines an entire life from the highs and lows to even the quiet moments in between. The times where a person sits back and thinks about how far they’ve come, and how their journey has taken them all the way to this point, as absurd and beautiful as that may be. I don’t know if I ever got a sense of who “Joe Heaney” was as an individual: his thoughts, fears, hopes, despairs, etc. But I can gather what he meant to Pat Collins and everyone involved in this film, and perhaps that’s good enough.