DocFest – The Soundtrack of Your Life

Whenever we watch a film, most of us take the soundtrack for granted.


If it wasn’t there, you’d notice, but it’s easy to overlook the work that goes into what we hear. It’s even got its own category in the Oscars, so someone must be listening.


Even before films had their own sound, they had music; sometimes played by an orchestra, but more often just by someone on a piano. ‘Silent’ films were anything but.

Today we are so used to the soundtrack that we often fail to notice it, but I would argue that it makes up more than 50% of the experience. You could hear a film and know what was happening, but watch something with the sound down, and you soon haven’t a clue what’s going on. What put me in mind of this was the recent Doc Fest held here in Sheffield. Five days of seminars and meetings, discussions and pitches, but most importantly dozens and dozens of films. What never fails to excite me is a film with a live musical accompaniment, and there were several of these to choose from. I got to see both British Sea Power and The Unthanks perform their own film soundtracks as films were shown, and I got to see James Rhodes perform and talk about taking classical piano music to places it never normally goes.

James is something of a maverick performer, who is keen to take his classical piano music out of the concert hall and into unusual places. ‘Notes from the Inside’ is a Channel 4 documentary which follows attempts to do just this. He’s convinced that taking his music into a mental hospital will help change the lives of those who unfortunately find themselves in there. This is no hollow boast. He himself suffered a severe mental breakdown and was in a secure psychiatric ward when a friend smuggled in an iPod to him. The feeling of hope that the classical music he listened to gave him has stayed with him, and the film follows his mission to see if he can return the favour. As each one of the patients listens, we listen too. Their reactions to camera were fascinating, made all the more poignant when we learned that they were all present for the screening.


After the film we also got the chance to quiz him, together with the producer and the director Lucy Cohen and Ursula Macfarlane, before he sat at the piano to give us all a chance to hear his beautiful and passionate playing.

British Sea Power were one of many jewels in the splendid Doc Fest crown in 2012, when they premiered their soundtrack to the film ‘From the Sea to the Land Beyond’. Indeed it was so successful that this year they’re back for more of the same. The Crucible was packed out, and, as festival director Heather Croall said as she introduced them, it looked like the decision to do it all over again was a good one. Penny Woolcock’s film is a beautiful compilation of BFI archive footage about the British coastline, stretching back to the very early days of movie making. Through peace time and through war, through the boom and bust of the industrial age, we saw how what happens at the seaside reflects the lives of us all.


Footage which might have seemed mundane at the time, has since become a fascinating chronicle of such things as the changing role of women and the changing class divisions of society. All this was played out to the exhilarating and exciting music of Brighton-based British Sea Power. When it was shown on BBC4 last year, social media sites went into frenzy, and critical acclaim was heaped upon the project in press reviews. No wonder so many turned up for another chance to experience it all.

Round about the same time, a few hundred miles up the A1, a similar project was coming to fruition. The Unthanks had been commissioned to create a soundtrack to a similar compilation, ‘Songs from the Shipyards’ about British shipbuilding. The minimal arrangements and stark, often unaccompanied vocals of tonight’s show were a powerful reminder of the ‘less is more’ approach. The story of the decline of the British shipbuilding industry is a familiar and fairly easy one to tell, but the skilful use of documentary footage, and the music of The Unthanks made this into a masterpiece of storytelling. The album itself is a triumph, and one I’ve listened to frequently since its release at the end of last year.


As a result, I was very excited finally to be given the chance to hear songs from it played live to accompany the images that inspired them. With no more than piano and solo violin to underscore the vocals, Rachel and Becky Unthanks were outstanding. The highlight was an arrangement of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Big Steamers’, which became a poignant love song to the ships that bring us food from all over the world. A packed house was testament to the fact that the word is definitely out about how good The Unthanks music is, and the whole evening was yet another reason why we should be so proud and excited to have DocFest in our city.



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