The Ballad of Shirley Collins
Director: Rob Curry, Tim Plester
Cast: Shirley Collins, Stewart Lee, David Tibet
Country of Origin: UK 29017 93 mins. (12A)
Released by Fifth Column Films
“I like lots of different music and Shirley’s in the top ten of all artists for me, irrespective of what they’re supposed to be classified as.” Stewart Lee
Widely regarded as the 20th century’s most important singer of English traditional song, Shirley Collins is someone who was born to invoke the old songs.
Alongside her sister Dolly, Shirley stood at the epicentre of the folkmusic revival during the 1960s and 1970s. But in 1980 she developed a disorder of the vocal chords known as dysphonia, which robbed her of her unique singing voice and forced her into early retirement.
Deliberately eschewing a straightforward biopic approach, Rob Curry and Tim Plester ‘Way of the Morris’, is a lyrical response to the life-and-times of a totemic musical figure. Granted intimate access to recording sessions for Shirley’s first album (Lodestar) of new recordings in almost four decades, the film also features contributions from the comedian Stewart Lee and David Tibet of Current 93 What emerges is a meditative and carefully textured piece of portraiture. A timely delve into the arterial blood, loam and tears of our haunted island nation.
Counterpointing the film’s contemporary journey with a more literal one taken from the opposite end of Shirley’s life, The Ballad Of Shirley Collins also proves itself to be something of a time-travelling Transatlantic road-movie of sorts – utilising a motherlode of genuine archive audio to recount the tale of her seminal 1959 song-collecting trip around America’s rural Deep South alongside her then-lover (and legendary ethnomusicologist) Alan Lomax . A trip on which they uncovered and documented the music that would later inspire the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou
More than 3-and-a-half years in the making, and co-produced with Fifth Column Films and Burning Bridges The Ballad Of Shirley Collins is the first release from Fire Films; the new film arm of the revitalised Fire Records and sister label Earth Recordings.
The film received its world premiere at the 2017 BFI London Film Festival
Here then is a story about one woman’s battle to rise again from long silent ashes. A story about heritage, posterity and the true ancestral melodies of the people. A story which would seem to be suggesting that, during these turbulent and increasingly untethered times, we might just need Shirley Collins now more than ever.