Love Shines (Director: Doug Arrowsmith): Love Shines is a first-rate, in-depth portrait of acclaimed Toronto singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith. Director Arrowsmith, a hardcore Sexsmith devotee, avoids turning his film into a fanboy gushfest; instead, he unabashedly presents the singer with all of his flaws nakedly on display. Sexsmith is a painfully insecure and introverted individual – your classic “tortured artist”, as it were – and it’s surprising how much access into his life he gives Arrowsmith, in whom he clearly put a great deal of trust. Shot over the course of seven years, the documentary was originally conceived to stop filming after Sexsmith’s then career high of headlining at Toronto’s famed Massey Hall, back in 2006. Instead, Arrowsmith kept shooting, which presented the opportunity to chronicle the recording of Sexsmith’s twelfth album, Long Player Late Bloomer. Those recording sessions, which provide some intriguing insight into Sexsmith’s creative process, are the centrepiece of Love Shines, and the film is significantly better because of it.
Sexsmith, for those unfamiliar with his career (and I counted myself in that group before watching the documentary), has been a perennial critics’ favourite since his debut solo album came out in 1995 (he released an album four years prior as a member of Toronto indie band The Uncool). Peers such as Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Leslie Feist, and Daniel Lanois have been singing his praises for years and do so throughout the film. In fact, Costello, one of Sexsmith’s biggest champions, equates his skill for creating melodies to that of Paul McCartney. Despite the accolades, Sexsmith still sells a paltry number of albums, which is a constant source of angst for him. The ongoing struggle with maintaining artistic integrity while seeking mainstream success informs much of the narrative in Love Shines, leading to the enlistment of mega-producer Bob Rock to oversee the recording of Long Player Late Bloomer. Rock is primarily known as a hard rock/metal producer, based on his earlier work on a number of hugely successful albums from the likes of Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, and The Cult. Most notably, he was Metallica’s exclusive producer for 12 years and is more than used to working with an artist and having their every move filmed, as was the case for the fantastic doc on the band, Some Kind Of Monster. In recent years, he’s diversified his scope to include acts such as Nina Gordon, The Tragically Hip, and Michael Bublé. Sexsmith hopes the pairing will raise his profile via the pure name recognition that the producer brings, as well as increase album sales by way of the more commercially palatable and highly polished sound that Rock gets from the artists he works with. A stellar group of veteran musicians is brought on board to play on the album, including drummer Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails, A Perfect Circle), guitarist Rusty Anderson (Paul McCartney), bassist Paul Bushnell (Elton John, Sugarland), and keyboardist Jamie Edwards (Aimee Mann).
Periodic and introspective glimpses back into Sexsmith’s upbringing reveal a shy youngster who struggled with his confidence and endured abuse from bullies while growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario, eventually becoming a father at age 19 after getting his girlfriend pregnant at the same moment he lost his virginity. Certain milestones from Sexsmith’s career are shown, including a home movie scene where we see his parents, watching the 2002 Juno Awards on their home television, become ecstatic over his win for Songwriter of the Year. In it, his mother is seen excitedly taking pictures of the TV screen as her son wins the award, apparently unclear of how a VCR works. It’s one of the funniest (and sweetest) moments in the film. “Funny” is not exactly a word anyone would associate with Sexsmith himself. In his interviews with Arrowsmith, he comes across as a fragile, depressed, and lacking confidence, which reminded me of a line from Bruce Springsteen’s “Better Days”: “It’s a sad man, my friend, who’s livin’ in his own skin and can’t stand the company.” Most of the theatre audience stuck around for the post-screening Q&A session with Sexsmith and Arrowsmith, and I must say I felt downright horrible that I had to leave about halfway through to catch my last Hot Docs screening uptown. As I conspicuously descended the stairs and walked across the front of the theatre, past the singer to the exit, I couldn’t help but worry that Sexsmith was tapping into his ever-present insecurities and wondering why someone wasn’t interested in hearing what he had to say. Does that make me narcissistic or empathetic?
Early indications (it came out in March) indicate that Long Player Late Bloomer won’t propel Sexsmith to significantly new heights of commercial success. The album actually turned out to be a hard sell to prospective music labels, with some ironically rejecting it as being too mainstream. Still, it should improve on the sales numbers from his last several albums and this film (which is now airing on HBO Canada) should help him find a new audience. Whether it’s the excellent music, financial struggles that one wouldn’t expect a “name” musician to face, the strange dichotomy of a guy who hates the spotlight but performs in it for a living, or just the fact that Sexsmith makes for a great underdog story, non-fans will find plenty in Love Shines to hold their interest.