When Martha Wainwright performed in Sydney Opera House last year, she took a few moments to thank both the city and the venue for giving her such great family memories, as she reminisced about the wonderful week in 2005 when she, her brother, Rufus Wainwright, their mother Kate and aunt Anna McGarrigle, all holidayed together after appearing on the bill of Sydney Festival's ‘Came So Far For Beauty’ concerts.
None of them knew it then but Kate McGarrigle would soon be diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare kind of cancer that took her life too early at the age of 63 in January 2010. McGarrigle left a legacy of ten studio albums that she wrote and recorded with her sister Anna, but this film suggests that more than that she left behind many grateful people whose lives had been touched by hers for the better.
The majority of the footage in this documentary, Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You, is taken from a concert held in honour of Kate McGarrigle at the Town Hall Theatre in New York City in May 2011, when an ensemble of more than thirty musicians – many of them family, including cousins, nephews and nieces, as well as McGarrigle's more famous siblings and children - paid tribute to this dame of Canadian folk music with performances of songs written by her, for her, and about her. This footage is supplemented with clips from old documentaries, home movies, rehearsals and interviews, to form a moving portrait of a woman who loved her life, friends and family, and who gained simple joy from writing songs and singing them (“remember Rufus”, she laughed with her young son, “there’s no business like show business”).
The film opens in black and white with shots of the Wainwright siblings putting flowers on their mother’s grave, while Rufus sings a song he wrote about her passing, ‘Candles’, unaccompanied on the soundtrack. It’s a poignant beginning and just the first of many moments that will have you reaching for the Kleenex (Rufus himself is in tears for much of the film), but thankfully this film is a balanced and honest appraisal, achieving its emotional core without merely stooping to mawkish sentiment.
Directed in a reliably-unfussy manner by Australian filmmaker, Lian Lunson, (who also made the Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man documentary about the ‘Came So Far for Beauty’ concerts), Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You is a compelling reminder of just what a fabulous writer and performer McGarrigle was, as well as a touching farewell. Joining the family to pay tribute are: Norah Jones, who excels on a reading of ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino’; Teddy Thompson, who re-captures a few moments of Kate’s youth with her autobiographical but unreleased ‘Summer Saratoga Song’; Krystal Warren (recently in Australia for the Way to Blue shows) who does a superlative take on ‘I Don’t Know’; Emmylou Harris, one of Kate’s best friends, who sings her own composition, ‘Darlin’ Kate’, as well as one of McGarrigle’s best-known songs, ‘Heart Like a Wheel’; Jimmy Fallon, who almost steals the show with his washboard, spoons and tap-dance solo during an irrepressible ‘Swimming Song’, a hit for the McGarrigles but actually written by Kate’s ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III, who is a notable absence in this film (Fallon also gets the crowd belly-laughing when he refers to the ridiculously-talented Wainwright/McGarrigle clan as “the Von Trapps”); Antony Hegarty, who joins Rufus for a bitter ‘I Cried For Us’; and writer and fellow-Canadian Michael Ondaatje.
You don’t have to know anything about Kate McGarrigle or her work to enjoy and be affected by Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You. The performances featured are superb and, more than mere tribute, they seem to become part of Kate McGarrigle’s family and friends’ healing process, using the beautiful music they all shared as a means to slowly recover from the pain of her loss.
Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You – A Concert for Kate McGarrigle is screening at Sydney Film Festival on June 15 and 17.
Running Time: 109 minutes.