(2018) Music Documentary (Apple Music/Abramorama) Ed Sheeran, Benny Blanco, Julia Michaels, Johnny McDaid, Matthew Sheeran, Fuse Odg, Foy Vance, Ryan Tedder, Murray Cummings, Amy Wadge. Directed by Murray Cummings
Some movies are meant to appeal to niche audiences. This particular documentary is going to appeal to Ed Sheeran fans, for example; it isn’t likely to win any new ones and how you receive the film is going to entirely depend on how you receive his music.
Me, I blow hot and cold on Ed Sheeran. He has written some beautiful, amazing songs. He has also written some cliché pop songs that sound like they came off an assembly line. It’s okay – nobody is ever going to write songs in which every single one appeal to you. That just isn’t possible. However, I suppose that dichotomy of admiration has colored my perception enough to make this a mixed review.
The movie takes place during Sheeran’s 2016 hiatus. He had just finished touring off his second album Multiply and was preparing to record his third album Divide. Cummings shoots this entirely on hand-held cameras giving a fly-on-the-wall immediacy but strangely it lacks intimacy. It feels like everyone there is playing to the camera and nobody is being themselves. We rarely get any conversations with any depth to them during the course of the film, which is not a good thing.
That would be all right if there was something interesting going on onscreen but I’m afraid there really isn’t. The songwriting process seems to be Sheeran and various collaborators noodling about on guitars, keyboards or to a computer-generated beat and coming up with snippets of lyrics and couplets of songs. There does seem to be a process of building each song like a child with a LEGO set but oddly Sheeran never comments on the process and even more stupefying is that Cummings never asks him.
This isn’t a Dylanesque songwriter sitting down at a piano or with a guitar and letting inspiration come; Sheeran has collaborators (as many as nine) on each song which I suppose can generate some synchronicity but to be honest, a lot of the songs lack a human kind of spark. Personally I would love to see Sheeran lock himself in a room and let his heart do the writing but given that he proclaims near the end of the film “Anyone who doesn’t want to be bigger than Adele is in the wrong business,” which leads me to retort that anyone who doesn’t want to write songs that illuminate, or touch the heart of the listener is in the wrong business as well.
Keep in mind that Sheeran is a young man who achieved extraordinary success at a young age and perhaps his priorities are skewed because of it. He seems an affable young man with an easy grin and there are at least two songs on the album that I thought were incredible but most of the others were to put it bluntly sounded alike. The problem with modern music is that too many artists rely on formulas to create hits rather than revealing something of themselves. Formulas are easy; insights are hard and the latter are almost non-existent here.
Still, some of the musical sequences are lovely (particularly a heartwarming moment when he records at Abbey Road) and some are just goofy, most of that supplied by producer/songwriter/partner-in-crime Benny Blanco whose fear of flying causes him to take a transatlantic cruise ship. Sheeran tags along and the men turn one of the larger suites into a recording studio for the voyage which sounds better on paper than it does on film. This is not a great documentary but it’s an adequate one. Maybe that’s the best we could have expected.
REASONS TO GO: Sheeran fans are going to adore this.
REASONS TO STAY: I didn’t really find any insight into the songwriting process.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cummings is Sheeran’s cousin; the two have been close friends since childhood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nick Cave: One More Time With Feeling
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Minding the Gap