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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Nick Drake On Film

Filmmakers have time and again been interested in the image of the artist as a lonely, tortured genius. It is a romantic image, promising a dramatic story, that is well suited to the film medium. But it demands an engaging subject. Very few artists fit the bill as tragically and truthfully as Nick Drake.

It is not surprising then that someone would want to make a film about him. A prodigiously gifted singer-songwriter whose work wrestled with the poetry of dark emotions and who released only three albums and performed a handful of concerts before he lapsed into severe depression and committed suicide, Drake has left behind himself an image of the shattered poet, full of mystery and romance. It would seem that Drake’s story would offer a wealth of possibilities for a filmmaker. But the film that was made about him, A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake, fails to live up to these possibilities, and it fails because it is too much about the image and not enough about the man.

The Boston premiere of A Skin Too Few took place on October 28 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. The film was shown as the culmination of the month-long Folk On Film series, sponsored by folk radio station WUMB as part of their 20th Anniversary celebration. As with the other screenings in the series (which included films about such musical artists as Leonard Cohen, Vic Chesnutt and Wilco), the movie was preceded by a performance from a local folk-singer; in this case, the sixties-folk-rock influenced Bob Franke.

Franke’s songs were sometimes thoughtful and pretty, but ultimately did not have the power to interest the crowd that was restlessly waiting for the film to begin. Franke seemed to sense this and wisely cut his set short. It was a rather lackluster performance, but you’ve got to give the guy a break; Nick Drake is a tough act to open for, and Franke’s style was just too dissimilar to engage a crowd that was obviously gathered for something else. Franke will be performing at Club Passim in Cambridge on November 29.

A Skin Too Few was made by Danish director Jeroen Berkvens. Although it was released just two years ago, in 2000, the film has a oddly dated quality that is the result of Berkvens style as much of the low grade of the film (which has been poorly preserved and is covered in scratches) and the sound (which is tinny and distorted and often comes close to ruining the beauty of Drake’s music). The effect is that of watching someone’s home movies from the seventies, which would actually be fine if the film had half the insight and personal revelation that home movies have. For a documentary, it is awful short on documentation. And at a mere 48 minutes, it seems somehow to be over-long, stretching itself thin.

Which is too bad because there is a lot to Drake’s story. Nicholas Rodney Drake was born, in suitably romantic style, in Rangoon, Burma to a well-off English family who returned to England when Drake was four to settle in a large house outside the small Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden. Drake lived out the traditional, privileged youthhood of the English upper-class, attending prep schools, where he learned to play the piano, clarinet, alto-saxophone and, fatefully, the guitar, and traveling in France, where he began to experiment with drugs and started writing songs. In 1967, he went to Cambridge to study English. There, he continued to write songs, shaping a unique poetic voice influenced by the Romantics and developing his signature rhythmic guitar style. In 1969, after being discovered at performance during an anti-war festival in London in ’68, he released his first album, Five Leaves Left. It was a brief moment of glory and satisfaction for Drake. The album won critical praise but sold poorly, and an attempt to tour ended in disaster as it became clear that Drake’s music was not suited to the rock n’ roll crowd and that Drake himself was too introverted and reclusive, and too committed to his art, to embrace celebrity. Two albums followed, Bryter Layter and Drake’s final masterpiece Pink Moon. Drake’s increasing depression showed in the growing darkness and richness of his music, which became lovelier and more heartbreaking as Drake sunk deeper inside himself. Drake moved back to his family’s house and, in 1971, he was prescribed the anti-depressant, Tryptizol. In 1974, at the age of 26, he overdosed on the very same drug that was meant to help him.

It is a tragic story of brief and gifted and pained life, and it deserves deeper investigation. The problem with the film is that it covers the basics, but fails to go beyond them. Part of the problem is the lack of material. The film features interviews with only a few of Drake’s friends and family members, and the stories they tell, while providing a lot of interesting information about other things, don’t really say very much about Drake himself. At one point, Drake’s sister Gabrielle plays a tape of their mother performing one of her own songs (Drake’s mother, it turns out, was a talented singer-songwriter in her own right). The similarities between the styles of mother and son are striking, but a further connection is never drawn about the musical influence Mrs. Drake may have had upon Nick. At another point, a recording engineer deconstructs a mix of one Drake’s songs for us. It is an interesting glimpse into the process of recording an album, but it doesn’t serve to paint a clearer portrait of Drake as an artist.

Most of the visual documentation of Drake consists of insistently recycled publicity stills. The sparse amount of film footage used, some home movie excerpts showing Drake as a small child, is saved until the last few minutes of the film, and is used in an obvious attempt to pull at the audience’s heartstrings. By that point however, it is doubtful that anyone would still be paying attention. It is as if someone made a film about a person and then decided to take the person out of it. Perhaps this effect is due to a lack of surviving footage of Drake; he certainly was no fan of the press. If this is the case, however, then the director really should have rethought his medium. As it stands, A Skin Too Few is more than a few frames short of being a real movie.

Worse, this seems the result of a misguided intention. Rather than fleshing out Drake’s personality and cultural relevance through interviews and footage of the artist, the film veers off into poetic abstraction, swooning all over itself with nostalgic and kitschy images of gaudy sunsets, rainy streets, and, again and again like a travel brochure, the foggy lushness of the English countryside.

The initial appeal of the film’s “moodiness” (read “lots to look at, nothing to say”) fades quickly as A Skin Too Few degenerates into a music video for music that doesn’t need a video. Drake’s music is full enough in itself. It doesn’t need pictures of wispy trees and empty rooms to help it along. Such images verge on Hallmark-style cheesiness and actually cheapen the music rather than enhance it. And this is what the film does to Drake himself as well. It leaves the man lost somewhere in the romantic mists of his own image.