The Ballad of Shirley Collins (2017) | BFI London Film Festival 2017
Dir: Rob Curry | Tim Plester | Musical biopic Doc | UK | 94′
Rob Curry and Tm Plester (Way of the Morris) retain a 1970s aesthetic for this lyrical paean to Shirley Elizabeth Collins MBE (born Sussex 5 July 1935) the English folk singer who, along with her sister Dolly, is widely regarded as the mainstay of the English Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s. After leaving school at 17, she often performed on the banjo and recorded with her sister Dolly, whose piano accompaniment created unique settings for Shirley’s plain and often plangeant singing style. She first met Communist activist and eminent ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax at a party Ewan MacColl held in the early 1954, fell in love and followed him back to Kentucky in 1959 where he had been under surveillance during the McCarthy witch-hunt. The two made recordings under Atlantic Records under the title Sounds of the South (some were re-enacted in the Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou). But the focus here is largely on Shirley and her life experiences up to the present day, and there’s a distinct feeling of loss and redemption that runs through it.
Shirley Collins comes across as vulnerable but warmly down to earth telling how she briefly lost her singing voice after a relationship ebded, but she has certainly recovered it now – she looks and sounds stunning at 82 – as she performs informally. Shirley is also a lively raconteur adding a touch of wry humour when recalling letters to her family back home, written from her time in Mississippi with Alan, which she describes as ‘quite domestic’: “I must finish now as I have to go and syringe Alan’s ears”.
Narrated by Hannah Arterton (The Five) and enlivened by original black & white footage, audio archives, and colourful filmed excerpts from Arundel and the countryside around East Sussex where she grew up, this enjoyable and informative biopic raises the profile of this little known era of English folk singing with a distinct pagan feel to it. THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS is fascinating and gorgeously framed and captured in Richard Mitchell’s limpid visuals. MT
ON RELEASE FROM 20 OCTOBER 2017 AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS