Berlinale 2018: Ed Sheeran ‘Songwriter’ review – portrait of a self-confessed beige person

Three albums in and unthinkable financial success later, it was only a matter of time until someone made a film about Ed Sheeran, a musician loved and loathed seemingly in equal measure. Met with raised eyebrows and silent scepticism when announced as the Special Gala for the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, Songwriter follows Sheeran behind the scenes in the lead-up to the release of latest LP Divide, the documentary being shot by director, producer, editor – and incidentally Sheeran’s own cousin – Murray Cummings.

“I feel like there’s been a lot of content about him as a performer but not about the other side, as a songwriter. So I wanted to focus on that”, Cummings explained at the film’s Berlinale press conference.  Sheeran’s fame has been cyclically hyped and trashed over the past few years – lest we forget his Game of Thrones cameo – but there’s none of that in Songwriter; no live shows, no talk shows, no show-off “I’m just a normal guy” candid interviews. He’s just writing songs that have gone on to dominate charts all over the world for months on end (though perhaps this is the ultimate “normal guy” routine?).

Cummings began filming his cousin in 2008 and edited the film for two years straight. On the tour bus, across the seas and back in his hometown of Suffolk, the director sits in as Sheeran shapes Divide from start to finish. It’s a relaxing and easy watch, soundtracked by endless humming and strumming.

For an album that achieved such explosive success, the illustrative documentary is surprisingly calm. As promised, the focus remains on the music. Sheeran is always writing and ticking along, a pleasant smile on his face as long as he has a guitar in hand. The film flows with the ease with which Sheeran writes. “I’m not worried about the album anymore”, he tells his cousin. As he riffs around ‘Galway Girl’, which went on to reach over 100 million streams, it’s easy to see why.

The documentary gives a cool insight into Sheeran’s process, which seems as infuriatingly normal as he does. For fans or naysayers looking for a secret look at the musician’s personal life, there’s little new ground to discover. Politics, love life, or even any big form of controversy are all absent. “I’m quite a beige person”, Sheeran admitted. “I don’t want any strong opinions out there”.

This is why Songwriter ends up being frustratingly enjoyable. Neither the filmmaker nor the subject respond to probing attacks on the artist’s inoffensiveness, nor do they fuel any further conversation about anything other than Ed Sheeran’s music.

A beautifully quiet sequence in Abbey Road studios shows Sheeran performing the entirety of his recent single ‘Perfect’ alongside a live orchestra, arranged by his brother. It’s tastefully done, with no sensational voiceover nor tear-filled reaction shots massaging anyone’s ego. There’s no reason to not enjoy the music.

The simplicity of scenes like these, cross-cutting with in-studio moments of mixing and lyric tweaks, are pleasant. Emotions run the highest in a mixing session for ‘Shape of You’, with a couple of furrowed brows constituting the emotional climax. But we’re not here for heated revelations or meltdowns, and it’s not why Cummings, or Sheeran started any of this at all.

The refreshingly new spin on the all-too-familiar music documentary is loyal to its protagonist. Song to song, the music remains and prevails over any new tricks the film could feign to offer. “I don’t really care about [fame]”, Sheeran says, in case that wasn’t already clear.

If his scruffy jeans and Nice Guy quirks annoy most advocates in search of a bolder, more controversial artist, the pitchforks can now be put down. He’s not here to defend or deny any of it, and he doesn’t really care. He just wants to make music – and in its simplicity, Songwriter lets him do it.

Originally published on the Independent

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