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article imageMcGarrigle documentary captures songs of faith, family, and love Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Jun 25, 2013 in Entertainment
New York - Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle passed away in 2010. A year later, a series of tribute concerts were organized. Filmmaker Lian Lunson captured the New York edition, and, with insightful interviews, turned it into a feature-length documentary.
Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You, a movie that opened last year at the inaugural Sundance London festival, features a number of renowned artists paying tribute to McGarrigle's musical mastery, chiefly her children, Martha Wainwright and Rufus Wainwright. The Australian-born Lunson captured the pair during some intimate, almost unbearably personal moments as they honored their talented mother through music and words, alongside photographs, home movie clips, and historic audio.
Lunson says the film was driven by a desire to see Kate McGarrigle’s work more recognized within the public sphere. "I wanted her music to reach a whole new audience," Lunson explains. "Whenever you make a film about a person, you already have their fans, you know you’re going to reach a certain audience, (but) what you aim for is the people who don’t know the music. I focused on hopefully bringing a whole new audience to her work and an appreciation, because these songs are so extraordinary."
New York is in for a McGarrigle-heavy week. The documentary is set to be screened tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it'll include a Q&A with director Lunson, along with Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright; on June 26th, BAM is set to stage Kate’s Kids, a live concert featuring Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Mark Ronson, along with Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright and special guests; proceeds from the evening will benefit the Kate McGarrigle Fund. Starting June 26th, Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You will enjoy an exclusive run at the Film Forum through July 9th; Rufus Wainwright will introduce the film in-person on June 28th, and there will be a Q&A with Lunson to follow on that same evening. The screenings this week coincide with the June 25th release of Sing Me The Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle (Nonesuch Records), a 2-CD compilation of McGarrigle covers culled from live tribute concerts in London, New York, and Toronto in 2011.
Considered a Canadian treasure, the Montreal-born Kate McGarrigle, who frequently collaborated and performed with older sisters Jane and Anna in the 1960s and 1970s, never achieved the international fame of singer-songwriter contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins during her lifetime. As Rufus Wainwright told Vulture last year, I know my mother wanted fame. She was jealous of Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell. Part of her was aching for that kind of acceptance — and let’s face it, that kind of money. She struggled with that. But she wasn’t able to handle fame emotionally, to navigate it. She didn't have the steely will to keep all the ducks in order. So she had to just focus on her songwriting. But the end product is incredible: She was able to experience and translate the full gamut of emotions women go through without any filter, without any ulterior motive, without trying to get anybody’s pants off. Her catalogue was the best gift she could have given her children.
Kate McGarrigle passed away after suffering from single-cell sarcoma (a rare form of cancer) in January 2010, at the age of 63. The Montreal Gazette recently described the McGarrigle's music as "encoded in the DNA of anyone in Montreal song circles, and sounds now like something from a sepia yesteryear — not because the songs or sentiments have aged, but because the biz has moved so far from them into easy formalism and hard-candy instant buzz." Among the more well-known songs from the McGarrigle sisters' charmingly poetic, warmly human canon are "Talk To Me Of Mendocino", “I Am A Diamond”, and "Heart Like A Wheel”. These, along with many others, are featured in Lunson’s nearly two-hour documentary.
 Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You  runs at the Film Forum in New York City June 26th through Ju...
"Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You" runs at the Film Forum in New York City June 26th through July 9th.
Lian Lunson
Skillfully pairing rousing musical numbers with candid interviews (and a moving reading by writer Michael Ondaatje), Lunson creates a unique brand of immediacy last experienced in her 2005 documentary, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, as well as her earlier music doc, 1997’s Willie Nelson: Down Home. With a stylish, emphatically individualistic elegance of economy, she deftly captures the special, small moments of the May 2011 concert: Anna McGarrigle's slow inhalation, the small smile across Norah Jones' lips, the miniscule brow-crinkling of Emmylou Harris, tears falling down the sculpted face of Rufus Wainwright or glistening across the long eyelashes of his sister. It's a filmic gaze that isn't so much invasive as it is intimate, not leering so much as loving, not exploitive, but exquisite. It is, quite simply, a work of intense love and devotion.
Rufus Wainwright approached Lunson during a 2011 dinner in New York; the singer-songwriter wanted the filmmaker’s advice on how to go about filming the then-upcoming tribute show at the historic Town Hall. The two arranged a subsequent lunch, where it was decided Lunson herself would make the film. "Basically it was just an organic thing," she recalls one recent afternoon on the line from California. "The concert wasn’t that far away, so the goal was to film the concert first and put the pieces all together after that."
One is forced to consider both familial relationships as well as artistic legacy in watching Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You; if you, as a viewer, hail from any sort of creative background, you'll come away thinking carefully about the role it -and the person who brought it to you -played in your life, and the effect such a figure has on present and future experiences, particularly if that figure is no longer living. There’s a solemnity to the proceedings combined with an intense joy, and, as Rufus Wainwright notes toward the film’s end, a simple, all-encompassing gratitude: for the exposure to the art, for its meaning in your own life, for even the challenges and keen doubts it presents you with moving forwards in your own life.
Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You derives its title from a line in the McGarrigle's "The Work Song", performed with a beguiling mix of whimsy and wisdom here by New York-based artist Justin Vivian Bond. Lunson makes generous use of long, lingering shots and close-ups, a technique that has been compared by the Hollywood Reporter to Martin Scorsese’s 1978 music documentary The Last Waltz. Among the film’s highlights are a rousing performance of “Swimming Song” by a washboard-wielding Jimmy Fallon, a heart-stopping duet featuring Rufus Wainwright and Antony of “I Cried For Us”, and a lush, gorgeous performance of "Proserpina", the last song Kate McGarrigle wrote. Martha Wainwright originally recorded it for Christy Turlington’s 2010 film, No Woman No Cry (about the health risks women around the world face in giving birth), but it wasn’t used, although the song, deeply poignant in its mythical imagery, did become a foundation of sorts for Wainwright’s 2012 album, Come Home To Mama (V2). Martha Wainwright told music site The Quietus last year that “as we were mixing the album it became evident that 'Proserpina' was the cornerstone the record hinged on.”
 They’re very amazing performers   filmmaker Lian Lunson says of Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainw...
"They’re very amazing performers," filmmaker Lian Lunson says of Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright. "I think whenever you see them perform, you realize you’re in the company of something very unique. They wear hearts on sleeves, and pour everything into performing."
Lian Lunson
Song is, of course, the central feature of the documentary, though the film also features moving rehearsal footage, along with moving interviews and remembrances. There’s a sort of rich, poetic melange of creative voices here, one not often seen in contemporary music documentaries. Adding to the poetry is the strong undercurrent of friendship that runs through the film; it’s an undercurrent perhaps reflected in its credits, with the involvement of renowned German filmmaker -and Lunson’s longtime friend and mentor -Wim Wenders, who is an executive producer on the work. “I don’t think there’s a film I've made that he’s not been in the editing room,” says Lunson of the Oscar-nominated director. “I've shown him every step of my work along the way. It’s a big honor. He’s genuinely a huge fan, he really is, and has been, for a long time, of the McGarrigles’ too. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
Lunson is far less of a journalistic documentarian carefully chronicling the A to Z moments of a life, than she is a spiritual quilter, deftly weaving various threads of color and texture, thoughtfully looping the sharp reds of an E and V to the dark violets of a J and Y, through the creative and personal intervals and experiences of an individual life. It’s a technique -though Lunson may not label it thusly herself -borne entirely of instinct.
"I don’t plan my interviews," she confesses, "I don't write my questions, I don’t think about what I'm going to ask people -I just focus on being with them in that place, in that time. That is how I am. I don’t know if it’s the right way to do things, but that’s the way I do it."
Faith, it seems, is the magical thread holding so much of the quilts Lunson weaves together. “Sometimes in filmmaking, particular in documentary films, people are so focused on the right way to do things they miss the organic things that happen,” she says thoughtfully. “Faith is a huge part of it. I would say 70% of my work is based on the unseen. If you’re doing a project for the right reasons, you have to let go and let faith hold it up … you have to trust that. It’s unconventional, but it’s how I am.”
Lian Lunson was an actor before she came a director; as well as helping her overcome her shyness  ac...
Lian Lunson was an actor before she came a director; as well as helping her overcome her shyness, acting taught her about the roles intention and energy play in art. "I did a lot of theater, and we would talk in the way of actions. There’s this invisible focus of energy: “What did you want (your audience) to take away?” I think that’s the one thing that stays in my mind -that’s the only thing!"
Patricia Mazzera
One criticism of the film has been the relative absence of the Wainwrights' father, noted singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. Lunson says it wasn't "a pointed thing, by any means" -perhaps that's a veiled reference to a very intense family dynamic -but is more related to timing.
"He was busy," Lunson says simply, adding that Wainwright had been present at the Kate McGarrigle tribute concert that had happened in London just prior to the NYC Town Hall show in spring 2011. "It was just pure circumstance he wasn't there," she says, before adding that "Loudon and Kate have their own story. It was not the focus of this film; the focus of this film is (Kate's) children."
Indeed, Lunson says what has driven the pair last few years has been getting their mother’s work more widely known. “They’re very focused on getting people to really recognize the incredible songwriter she was,” she notes, her voice rising in reverence. “That is really key for them, (cultivating) their mother's legacy. They’ve started the Kate McGarrigle Fund, and all of this (the concerts, the film, the album) is part of honoring an incredible woman.”
There was a personal effect in making the film for Lunson, too. “The more I got to know (Kate) and be enchanted with this incredible, outgoing, completely individual woman who walked her own path in so many ways... there’s an admiration for her, and also, she had these incredible children who are very beautiful people, really they are. So, you come away incredibly inspired.”
More about Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, wainwright, Kate mcgarrigle, Anna McGarrigle
 
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