Shot in luminous black-and-white, director Pat Collins’ portrait of the celebrated folk singer Joe Heaney is an immersion in gorgeous gloom. It’s also a chance to hear the Irish language, mainly in poetry and song. There’s little dialogue, with Collins and his co-writers, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde and Sharon Whooley, eschewing connect-the-dots biography in favor of an impressionistic mosaic — one that refuses to sentimentalize its subject.
Heaney (1919-84) took the sean nós tradition of unaccompanied ballads beyond his coastal village in Connemara and spent the last two decades of his life in the States, working for a while as a doorman in New York and recording hundreds of songs.
He’s played as a boy by an arresting newcomer, Colm Seoighe, in deliberately paced scenes that drink in the atmosphere of the rugged landscape as well as the rhythms of schoolroom catechism. To the encouraging refrain of “good man,” he learns fishing skills and ancient songs from his da. “You always had your eye on the horizon,” the old man tells him years later, when Heaney’s about to abandon his wife and children. It’s the closest the film comes to commenting on his nomadic ways.
Interweaving documentary footage and recordings, Collins is interested in the man’s experience, not his psychology. But more than the story of an individual, the film is a stirring tribute to endangered folk traditions. In a mesmerizing 12-minute pub scene, singer Mícheál Ó Chonfhaola, playing Heaney in broody middle age, inhabits the melody and verses with breathtaking intensity, a musician gripping his hand as though to tether him to Earth.
‘Song of Granite’
In Irish and English with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica