'Songwriter': Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Murray Pictures Limited 2018
Banal adventures of a bland superstar.

Premiering in Berlin, this backstage documentary about hugely successful pop sensation Ed Sheeran was directed by his cousin Murray Cummings.

Grammy-winning, arena-filling, platinum-plated pop sensation Ed Sheeran is just 27, but he has already sold over 26 million albums and 50 million singles. Famed for his extensive tattoos and vivid red hair, this wholesome British balladeer has transformed his unassuming boy-next-door persona into a massive global brand. Even if his platitudinous, frictionless music washes over you as smoothly as it does me, Sheeran is unquestionably a rare pop-culture phenomenon whose stratospheric success deserves the in-depth documentary treatment. Songwriter is not that film.

Fans and non-fans alike will be disappointed by this thin, elusive backstage snapshot. The film was directed by Sheeran's cousin and occasional musical collaborator, Murray Cummings, who squanders his access-all-areas connection with a flaccid, ingratiating, fly-on-the-wall travelogue. World premiering in Berlin, this high-spec home movie is still likely to find some kind of audience given Sheeran's huge global following, but it feels like a big fat missed opportunity, insubstantial and unrevealing.

The timeline of Songwriter mainly spans Sheeran's low-key hiatus in 2016, when he had just finished touring his second album, Multiply, and began gathering material for his third, Divide. Cummings eavesdrops on writing and recording sessions in various locations, from transatlantic ocean liners to slick professional studios, including London's fabled Abbey Road. Released in March 2017, the album topped charts globally, selling over two million copies in the U.K. and closer to three million in the U.S. Tracks from the album, including the super-catchy transatlantic No. 1 hit "Shape of You," have been streamed in their billions.

Sheeran clearly has a flair for harnessing mainstream public taste, but Songwriter never explains how or why he got this way. Instead, Cummings lingers far too long on the blandly affable star's guitar-strumming, lyric-tweaking jam sessions with his entourage of guest writers, players and producers. There is no chronology or context here, no in-depth scrutiny, no journalistic rigor. Endless clips of a well-mannered young man making pleasantly anodyne music, surrounded by a team of fawning cheerleaders with fixed grins on their faces and dollar signs in their eyes, is not the raw material for a riveting rockumentary.

The singer's father John, mother Imogen and fiancee Cherry all make fleeting cameos, but Cummings does not glean insights from any of them, so tight is his focus on the man himself. That said, he also uncovers very little about Sheeran. The artist shares no political statements or confessional asides, and scant clues about his personal or cultural hinterland. His sole vaguely revealing comment concerns his competitive attitude towards other stars: "If you don't want to be bigger than Adele then you're in the wrong industry," he claims with a straight face. Some might argue this is precisely the wrong motive to make music, but Cummings does not pursue it.

Most documentary directors aim to wring maximum drama, tension, glamor, conflict and psychological complexity from their subjects. Not Cummings. During the same loose 18-month period covered in this film, Sheeran performed with Eric Clapton, launched his own record label, worked with Taylor Swift, played himself in the third Bridget Jones film, recorded a duet with Beyonce, campaigned against the U.K.'s Brexit referendum and reportedly sustained a sword injury from a minor member of the British royal family. None of these events figure in Songwriter, not even marginally. With an ineptitude so thorough it borders on genius, Cummings achieves the rare feat of making Sheeran appear even more boring in person than he is on record.

Songwriter is competently shot on hand-held camera, with adequate technical specs and an easy, intimate feel. It looks and sounds fine, it just skimps on its basic duty to inform and entertain viewers. The shoot concludes just as Sheeran gears up to go back on tour, an arena where his populist mastery is widely acknowledged. Cummings rolls the end credits over a perfunctory montage of concert footage, hinting at the potential excitement that a more skilled director might have delivered, in a smarter film, in a better universe than this.

Production company: Murray Films
Cast: Ed Sheeran, Benny Blanco, Foy Vance, Johnny McDaid
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Murray Cummings
Editors: Ben Wainwright-Pearce, Murray Cummings, Alejandro Reyes-Knight
Producers: Kimmie Kim, Murray Cummings
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Special)
Sales company: Murray Films, London

84 minutes