“The Job of Songs” at DOC NYC, November 10-28, 2021 (Wendy Moscow)

job of songs

A beautiful, tender, intimate film full of joy, love and the sorrow brought about by loss, “The Job of Songs,” from director Lila Schmitz (her debut feature) is a treat for the ear, the eye and the soul.

Doolin in County Clare is a remote village nestled against the spectacular (and windy) Cliffs of Moher on the West Coast of Ireland. Traditional Irish music has been woven into the DNA of this place for generations, and the music continues to thrive. Tourists come for the views but stay for the rollicking pub sessions that seem to spontaneously erupt when the music just cannot be contained. (Though I know these sessions are planned in advance, they do seem like a force of nature.) Even Ted McCormac, a man in this 80s with one leg (though it doesn’t slow him down), makes it to the pub to belt out a heartfelt ballad. The filmmakers contrast McCormac’s daily life – doing chores alone around his place – with the warmth, camaraderie and boisterousness of the community that gathers in the evening. This is a town full of fiercely independent folks, like McCormac, who find meaning and emotional sustenance in these nightly gatherings.

Luka Bloom (born Barry Moore) is a well-known singer-songwriter, and resident of Doolin. He describes the job of songs as “this thing of giving people who don’t have songs permission to feel things that are really deeply ingrained in them – that they don’t necessarily intellectually understand.” Both his older brother, Christy Moore (an original member of the tremendously popular neo-trad band Planxty) and his sister, Anne Rynne (who Bloom encouraged to perform when she was in her 60s) have carried this legacy forward. In turn, the older musicians share this legacy with the children. One of the most touching scenes in the film is button accordionist Christy McNamara playing along with his young niece on tin whistle.

Bloom is the philosopher of the film, decrying the fast pace of life that the modern world has brought. “For me, part of the beauty of life is waiting,” he says. We’ve lost the ability to “just sit and be.” We’re so busy “achieving” that “we miss out on sunsets” or “a heron” that happens to alight. “We’re complicit in this race – for what goal…?”

There’s a reason that most of the prominent performers in this world are men. As Katie Theasby explains, when most of the playing happened in people’s kitchens, women (who had household tasks and children to raise) participated equally. But when the music scene moved to the pubs in the 1960s (and became more professionalized), women had a harder time participating. Theasby, an extraordinary flute and whistle player, singer-songwriter, and single mom, struggles to record an album and do everything else her life demands. Candid interviews with her, especially, but the other musicians as well, engender a feeling of coziness and comfort, as if you are there in the room with an old friend. These interviews, the sessions, and the shots of the natural world surrounding the village (oh, those stark and towering cliffs!) are wonderfully filmed by cinematographer Anika Kan Grevstad, who displays an amazing range from intimate to sweeping.

But the centerpiece and raison d’etre of this film is the music. Featured performers (beside those already mentioned) include flautist Christy Barry (who also provides historical context) and a band called The Fiddle Case (whose personnel includes Jon and Kieran O’Connell, Adam Shapiro, and Eoin O’Neill). Fiddler Adam Shapiro found a spiritual/musical home in Doolin after having come from Capetown, South Africa, proving that love of the culture is not necessarily genetic. Bouzouki player Eoin O’Neill also hosts the West Wind traditional music show on Clare FM radio, and we get to experience his genial and intelligent disc jockeying style, supportive of local artists, at the beginning and end of the film – an inspired bookending that brings us full circle.

Depression, alcoholism and suicide have affected many of the villagers, and the interviewees do not skirt these issues (nor does the editing omit it). This ache can find its way into the music, as well as the joy. And after the credits roll and the lights come up, what we carry home with us is all of that – the exuberance, lyricism, deep emotions and celebratory power of the music that transcends the intellectual – the job of songs.

About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

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