Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote about a trailer for a documentary film that was in screenings called “The Job of Songs.” Unfortunately, I was unable to catch a look at the film, but I did look forward to the day it would receive wider release. And that day is this Tuesday, Nov. 21, when “Job of Songs” will launch on all digital platforms. Directed by Lila Schmitz, shot by Anika Kan Grevstad, and set entirely in County Clare (mostly around Doolin), the film is a fascinating journey into traditional music that checks in with the past in a way that helps make sense of the way musicians carry the tradition today.
The film has a strong cast that represents a slice of Doolin’s very rich musical life. The featured contributors here include Katie Theasby, Christy McNamara, Luka Bloom, Anne Rynne, Ted McCormack, Eoin O’Neill, Christy Barry, Adam Shapiro, and Kieran O’Connell, although many others make timely appearances to reinforce a point or play a tune.
The movie asks at its outset the question “why do people come here?” The question isn’t answered directly, but as the film passes along, the riches of Clare begin to reveal themselves and we eventually get at an answer, but it’s indirect, provided in roundabout. It’s an interesting evocation of what the passage of time is like in rural Clare, a point that is made and reinforced throughout.
The basis here is a very human story, an old fashioned story, and one that unfolds the story of Clare music. Schmitz uses the personalities of the people she speaks with to sketch out Doolin’s character. Sure, it’s an epicenter for music and tourism (these two inclinations rubbing up against one another in noteworthy ways) but what the filmmaker wants us to know is that it’s a place that protects an old fashioned way of life, come what may.
We hear a good bit from Luka Bloom, who tells us about his personal journey to Doolin. Born in Kildare, the experience of being in Doolin, the vibe, the music, and most important, the people, were a revelation that changed his life. His passion for the community is clear and it drives the narrative in
The Christys, Barry and McNamara, are featured throughout. Barry is extremely passionate about Doolin and is shown talking about it and its musicians, particularly the Russell brothers, throughout, reflecting on change and continuity in a way that is hard not to be attracted to. McNamara’s reverence for Doolin’s music and the way it is woven into people’s day-to-day reality helps get the viewer into the story. He also is the focus of a couple of very poignant moments, first when he talks about how he learned music from his father and second, when he plays concertina as his mother Biddy dances along. Both of these moments encapsulate the ideas Schmitz is trying to convey about what life is like in Doolin very nicely.
I liked the way in which the “session” is discussed. An informed viewer would appreciate the way the subject is handled, while an engaged non-initiate would come away with the critical perspective necessary to tell a good one from one that has a bit more staging to it.
The film also covers a lot of intellectual ground. For example, loneliness and loss is a theme that is interwoven throughout. In one segment, Theasby, in particular, does a lovely job of talking about this subject in a fairly abstract sense. McCormack talks about this as well, but he approaches it from a place of joy through a song, laughing as he talks about death. It’s a funny and well done juxtaposition. And while this subject might seem strange, the two help us begin to understand how loss and loneliness is a foundational element for why the area’s music sounds the way it does. It leads into an acknowledgment of the importance of mental health, which is a great thing to see here.
There’s a lot going on in “The Job of Songs.” On the surface, it’s a beautifully shot and expertly presented portrait of a slice of the music and musicians of County Clare. But what I think is most compelling about it are the people, who are all musical and clearly “of the place” in whatever way they’ve managed. There’s great character in all of them. I think fans of traditional music will enjoy what this film has to offer, but I’d prefer that those who know little about traditional music see it because it is a fine primer for what they should be looking for when they’re over. Not all Irish music sounds like the music you find in Doolin, but the spirit, captured well here, is what you want to look for. I think viewers will find this a very, very “Irish” film, so one to definitely check out now that it’s available to stream. To learn more, visit https://thejobofsongs.com/
By the way, if after you’ve seen “Job of Songs” you’re longing for more about Clare, it’s music and culture, I definitely recommend tracking down Oliver O’Connell’s film “Always a Journey, Never a Destination: A Clare Footprint” (available through Custy’s music, https://custysmusic.com/). I wrote about it here before — it gets at life in Clare from a different perspective, but one that viewers will absolutely enjoy as well.