By Liam Lacey
The Song and the Sorrow, the documentary which opens the annual Rendezvous With Madness Festival tonight, October 10 (it runs until October 21) is about Gene MacLellan, the Canadian songwriter who, with just a couple of albums in the early seventies, had a big impact. He's best-known for writing, “Snowbird,” which launched Anne Murray's career, and the new gospel standard, “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” released by the band Ocean and covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Joan Baez to Count Basie.
Shortly after MacLellan reached fame, he rejected it, dropping out and then embracing Christianity and gospel music. A deeply shy man, he suffered from depression and, in 1995, took his life at the age of 56.
The National Film Board–produced film, by Millefiore Clarkes — a native of P.E.I. where MacLellan spent much of his life — won the best short documentary at the Atlantic International Film Festival last month and will open the Charlottesville Film Festival later this week. It's a moving film about a man whose accomplishments were undermined by his deep sense of unworthiness. It's also about his daughter, Catherine MacLellan, herself an award-winning singer/songwriter and a gentle, reflective woman, as well as a lovely singer.
The film follows her quest to reconcile with her father's history and her own struggles with depression. Catherine had the traumatic experience of discovering her father's body when she was 14 and, for years, could not even sing his songs. Now a mother in her thirties with her own adolescent daughter, she has found a way of continuing her conversation with her father through his music. It's also an opportunity to encourage people to talk about depression and combat the stigma around mental health problems.
The film, which includes segments from Catherine's touring show, If It’s Alright With You: The Songs of My Father, Gene MacLellan, is impressionistic, woven around musical performance, Catherine’s voice-over and her conversations with family members and Gene’s friends and colleagues. The contributors include radio personality Eric MacEwan, Marty Reno (with whom MacLellan toured as a gospel duo), and the late Newfoundland songwriter, Ron Hynes. The finale interview is with the still-folky Anne Murray, who credits MacLellan with launching her career and who she remembers as "humble to a fault."
Murray also comments on MacLellan's talent as a singer, the rediscovery of which is one of the pleasures of the film. Although raised in Toronto and schooled as an early rock 'n' roller (as a teenager in the late 1950s he played in The Consuls with Robbie Robertson), MacLellan's lilting melodies were replete with country hurtin' and lyrics that, in retrospect, were more achingly personal than we knew: "And now I feel such emptiness within for the thing that I want most in life is the thing that I can't win" (“Snowbird”). "This kind of pain is kind of hard to explain but the feeling’s the same as like dying." (“The Call”). "And it causes me shame to know I'm not the man that I should be." (“Put Your Hand in the Hand”). The widespread embrace of these songs suggests how common such feelings are.
This summer, after 25 years, The Rendezvous With Madness Festival — founded by former psychiatric nurse, Lisa Brown — has dropped the word "Film" from its title to reposition itself as a multi-disciplinary arts event. There are still 18 feature films in the lineup along with short film programs under the direction of programmer Geoff Pevere, as well as a half-dozen performance pieces and a visual arts exhibit.