Dir.: Paul Fegan: Documentary with Aidan Moffat & Sheila Stewart; UK 2015, 75 min.
First time director Paul Fegan’s documentary chronicles the short encounter of two Scottish independent musicians: Aidan Moffat, frontman of Arab Strap and Sheila Stewart (1937-2014), Scotland’s most popular folk ballad singer who was born in the horse barn of a Traveller’s family and went on to performed for the Pope and US President Gerald Ford.
Moffat narrates the film and is clearly very taken with Stewart, and perhaps even overawed. But when they travel together through the hilly Scottish countryside, Stewart driving, an earnest dispute ensues: while Stewart insists in leaving the traditional ballads intact, Moffat wants to re-interpret the songs to reflect more modern times. As it turns out, Moffat has misinterpreted a line in the song ‘Where you’re meant to be’, not realising that the phrase “my ship’s in the harbour”, actually means that the person quoted is ready to die.
Although Stewart was selected by her uncle to learn all the Traveller ballads by heart, at the time she remembers regretting not being able to play outside with her friends. And at her last public performance, singing the song who gave the film its title in Glasgow’s ‘Barrowland’, Moffat has the grace to admit his lack of knowledge to the assembled crowd, even though he insists on rewriting many Stewart songs, which are in the public domain, transplanting them into a more comfortable urban environment.
Although Fegan makes a good job of portraying the rather prickly relationship between Moffat and Stewart, the documentary suffers from too much additional padding: the Loch Ness monster is called upon to vote “Yes” the Scottish referendum, and a gang of ancient Scottish knights fight the English in mock battles. Somehow the eccentric Scottish travelogue deflects from the central musical element here.
Sheila Stewart MBE is the last in a long line of ‘troubadours’ who kept alive the memories of their rootless, often persecuted people, and somehow she deserves a better farewell than this rowdy concoction. The raunchy punchlines and Moffat’s near pathological urge to see something comical in any given situation often side-tracks the seriousness of Stewart’s material, and the suffering of her people. DoP Julian Schwartz visuals are impressive in showing the husky darkness of the Scottish nights that make a atmospheric background to the music. AS
OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 17 JUNE 2016 | Also screening at SHEFFIELD DOC FEST ON 12 JUNE