For some, the mere mention of folk music conjures images of bespectacled beardy men and their straggle-haired consorts standing with tankards of real ale, shapeless woollen garments hanging about their swaying, robust frames, their arcane instruments of yore wheezing out their eldritch moanings while these bluff stalwarts stand mooing hey-nonny-nonsense in the corners of twee pubs about the battles they’ve won and how they’re far across the sea from the place they’re standing in.
I feel constrained to break the third-person tradition of review writing to declare that I am not one of these people. For me, folk music – really good folk music – is a truly magical, evocative way of encapsulating both social and musical history. It’s also a very living form – in my native Ireland, for example, you will almost never hear two identical versions of the same song if you travel from region to region – and songs evolve to meet local needs.
For Britpop denizen Aidan Moffat (he of Arab Strap), the evolution of folk music has been too slow, and he goes on a quest to update some of the Scottish classics to give a sense of the folk of today, to the chagrin of one of Scottish folk’s most revered exponents. And so it is that this quest is documented by director Paul Fegan in the film we get to call Where You’re Meant to Be, which perfectly markets itself as ‘a funny wee film about music and death’.
Following Moffat in 2014 as he develops and then tours his new, often fruitily-lyricked versions of these sacred cows of Scottish folk, we have exposed to us – often tenderly, sometimes electrically – the meaning of music to individuals and communities across the nation, many of them either geographically or emotionally remote.
We see the effect his music has on two daggers-drawn Nessie Hunters in the Highlands, or the meaning that truly soulful songs have for an isolated Hebridean farmer for whom the death of his wife has meant the collapse of his world. We see communities in village halls and outdoor fairs who are ill-prepared for the four-letter tirades inserted into songs they have grown up with, and we see dyed-in-the-wool folkies be won over by Moffat’s (paradoxically, I know), good-humoured misanthropy.
But in among it all is the beady eye and sharp tongue of Sheila Stewart – folk royalty. Born in a stable in Blairgowrie to travellers, she and her mother before her are the guardians of the Scottish folk flame. She believes this upstart has torn good music asunder by not truly investigating the meaning and context of the songs he’s changed and that he holds their value much cheaper than they deserve. Can she be won over?
Fegan’s style of direction is, in many ways, classic documentary – there’s nothing flashy about it and Julian Schwantiz’s cinematography is consummately professional without trying out anything particularly arty. This, however, is the right decision – it is not a chaotic music doc at all, it is a reflective piece that manages to have introspective moments while also projecting outwards great heart.
I wanted to dislike Moffat – the unkempt beard which makes him look far beyond his 43 years, the tearing up of the folk rule-book in order to put in a few expletives and some easy jokes about Glaswegians throwing up on a Saturday night, the casual way in which he scribbles over the top of the signature song of one of Scotland’s great folk artists who has performed for Popes and Presidents and blithely sings it to her in her car – but I could not. He is a genuinely inquisitive musician with a gimlet eye for the seamier side of the world around him and he wants a new stage in the evolution of folk music that reflects that. You want to go out on the town with him after a gig.
His is not the Scotland of bright tartans, tam o’shanters and shortbread. But that is not Sheila Stewart’s Scotland either. The glimpses into her life, which tragically ended before the film was entirely complete, are those into a life of a woman in love with the spirit of a nation, not its mass-marketed symbols or shibboleths, and she makes a powerful case for allowing some aspects of how that spirit is performed to be held in stasis for future generations, unchanged and untouched.
What could be a film about either a bitter old-versus-new battle for music (to add to the twenty million already in existence) or a slightly grim travelogue following a hard-drinking rasp-voiced pop-raconteur on a tour of made-to-look-dingy backwaters is actually a genuinely soulful, enthusing, steal-your-heart celebration of the music that people first made and the nation that it is both in honour of and protected by. Stewart’s death has led to a very mournful, reflective narration by Moffat, directing the whole film at her for her posthumous approval, but the zeal with which she held that life, seen most clearly in the film’s closing scenes at Glasgow’s Barrowland club, lift the shadow of her death and place her in the immortality of the music she adored.
For anyone who wants to grasp the grinding, electric reality of how music can affect souls, this is not to be missed.
Dir: Paul Fegan
Scr: David Arthur, Paul Fegan
Prd: Paul Fegan
Cast: Aidan Moffat, Sheila Stewart, Jenny Reeve, Joe Aitken, Geordie Murison, George Edwards, Steve Feltham et al
DoP: Julian Schwantiz
Music: Stevie Jones, Jenny Reeve, Michael John McCarthy (original score), Aidan Moffat, Sheila Stewart, Belle Stewart (principal folk contributions) plus contributions from multiple others
Running Time: 75 minutes
Where You’re Meant to Be is in UK cinemas June 17