“A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle,” a tribute concert honoring the music and memory of the Canadian singer-songwriter was held at Town Hall in New York City on May 12 and 13, 2011. She had been diagnosed with cancer in 2006, and died on January 18, 2010 at age 63, leaving a rich body of work and a wide circle of friends and family. Musicians who took part included Kate’s two children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, her sister and performing partner Anna McGarrigle, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones and many others, all of whom had strong connections to Kate, either personally or through her music, often both. The concert was filmed by Lian Lunsen, who turned the footage into a powerful documentary, Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle, which opened at Film Forum in New York last week on June 26. Lunsen, an Australian actress turned filmmaker, had previously made another concert film, the excellent Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005).
I wasn’t too familiar with Kate McGarrigle or her music before this. I’d heard of Kate and her sister Anna, and knew they were musicians who performed and recorded together. And that was about it. Later I learned that she was the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, who were born when Kate was married to Loudon Wainwright III from 1971 to 1977. My wife helped me sort out these relationships when we saw Loudon along with Rufus, Martha, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and the Roches performing songs from Loudon’s extraordinary album, “High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project,” at the Highline Ballroom in New York in 2009. Lucy Wainwright Roche was born when Loudon was married to Suzzy Roche, after he and Kate McGarrigle were divorced. I was beginning to get the sense of an incredibly talented and somewhat eccentric musical family, but it wasn’t until I saw Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You that I began to better know Kate McGarrigle.
In a New York Times review of the concert at Town Hall, Jon Pareles says of Kate McGarrigle’s music that she “…wrote 20th-century parlor songs: folksy-sounding, latter-day descendants of Stephen Foster tunes, hymns, waltzes and popular arias.” This is true enough, as far as it goes, but doesn’t begin to account for why I was so moved by the film and the music. I suspect it was that Sing the Songs powerfully conveys, via the performances as well as interviews and home movie footage interspersed throughout, a profound sense of loss that was felt by everyone involved. Of course, we’re hearing Kate and Anna’s songs filtered through the knowledge that Kate is no longer on the earth, which can’t help but affect our reactions to them.
Rufus and Martha are at the center of the film. Loudon Wainwright III used to joke that he’d probably be better known for his 1973 song, “Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road)” than for anything else he’d done in his long career. The irony of this is that he may end up being known more as Rufus Wainwright’s father. Rufus seems unique to me, an almost ethereal talent. Many times in the film his voice becomes a current of pure emotion, painfully beautiful. Martha, while not nearly as well-known as Rufus, is a wonderful singer in her own right, with a voice that can convey intense feeling. Here is Martha singing the last song her mother wrote, “Proserpina.” This song is performed in the film, but a clip of that footage is not currently available. I’m including this video from another source because both the song and Martha’s singing are so powerful and moving.
Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You has been expertly shot and edited to maximum effect. Transitions from color footage to black & white are seamless and create a layered texture. Close-ups, which are used extensively, give a feeling of intimate proximity to the singers. Everyone is in top form here, probably because of what it all means to them, and what’s at stake. This includes Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Anthony Hegarty, Krystle Warren, and Teddy Thompson. Someone I’d not heard of before, Justin Vivian Bond, gives an electrifying performance of “The Work Song.” I know “electrifying” can be a cliché, but believe me, it applies here. I was also curious (and somewhat skeptical) when I saw that Jimmy Fallon was in the lineup. What was he doing in this crowd? Well, I definitely found out. Fallon sings “Swimming Song” early in the film, and he’s great! This is one of the few songs performed that was not written by Kate — it’s one of Loudon’s. Fallon’s rendition is funny, endearing, and oddly moving. In other words, it fits in perfectly with the rest.
This film doesn’t attempt to be a biography of Kate McGarrigle. We learn very little of the details of her life. Loudon Wainwright III, for example, appears only twice, both times briefly seen in home movies with his kids, like a passing memory. His name is mentioned only once, on stage by Anna. I suppose all families are complicated, but not usually this talented. What Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You does do is give us Kate’s music in abundance, sung by the family and friends who loved her. And that seems like more than enough.
It’s unusual for anything, let alone a music documentary, to get as close to the bone as this film does in conveying an almost overwhelming feeling of love and loss. See it if you can. I think you’ll be glad you did. – Ted Hicks