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Everybloke megastar, prince of ordinariness turned music legend, unassuming Jekyll to Robbie Williams’s Hyde … Ed Sheeran is now the subject of this diverting but pretty incurious promo-video-style cheerleading documentary about the build-up to the release of Sheeran’s album ÷, or Divide. It doesn’t patronise or mock Sheeran, doesn’t presume to criticise or anatomise him, and it doesn’t accidentally-on-purpose reveal any hints of diva-like behaviour. It also high-mindedly disdains to notice the staggering levels of fame and acclaim which must make any other artist snarl with envy, although it does show Sheeran’s own rare touch of envy when he thoughtfully says that he’s still not big enough. “If you don’t want to be bigger than Adele you’re in the wrong industry. I don’t want to be the male Adele. I want to be Adele.”
The film respectfully sticks to the music: it doesn’t look at Sheeran’s private, romantic life, though there are shots of him with his partner Cherry Seaborn, and doesn’t ask him about his politics, such as his support for remaining in the EU. It does, however, show that Ed is not the wokest guy around, with that freshly laundered Hooters T-shirt of his. But it convincingly shows Sheeran to be a restlessly, even obsessively creative songwriter: that is the focus of the movie. He seems always to be thinking, humming, strumming, trying out riffs, warbling and keening unselfconsciously to himself, a guitar perpetually in his hand.
And what he’s always doing, is smiling. He is the smiliest rock star, perhaps the smiliest person on the planet. And he often goes into that little nodding thing that Kermit the Frog used to do on The Muppet Show after he had just said something easygoing. Sheeran just always looks happy. And when he isn’t happy, he’s neutral, and then looks happy. Surely there must have been tines when he was frustrated and lost his temper? If there were, Sheeran removed them from this movie’s rough cut. The nearest he comes to being cross is when he crisply tells a producer to remove extra guitar lines from Shape of You that he hadn’t authorised.
The man behind the camera is Sheeran’s cousin and friend Murray Cummings, who hangs out unobtrusively with him on the tour bus and at the array of international locations, from Malibu to Portsmouth, where Sheeran brainstorms and composes with his entourage of songwriters. Cummings has access to some uproarious home video of the artist as a young man: the teenage Ed is just as scarily calm, focused and driven in the recording studio as he is today.
Fascinatingly, Sheeran is shown producing and writing at the same time on the tour bus, with writer-producer Benny Blanco listening in, using what amounts to a tiny portable recording suite. Blanco instantly records the lines Sheeran has tried out, looping them, remixing them.
Blanco is at the centre of what passes for (very mild) tension in the film – possibly. He is the only writer who seems to question Sheeran’s decisions; the rest of them defer to his authority. Blanco is shown changing the line “you can go and fuck yourself” to “you can go and love yourself” in the song Sheeran was writing for Justin Bieber. And when Sheeran starts hanging out with all the other contributors, Blanco often drifts off, or hangs back, or has his headphones on and apparently can’t hear when Sheeran calls out to him for advice. Could Blanco have been a bit miffed at all these people? Well, maybe not.
This documentary is the polar opposite of something like Asif Kapadia’s Amy or Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me. There is no romantic tragedy, nor even a visible grit in the oyster: just a dogged, talented, unassuming professional showing us that it’s about the perspiration, not just the inspiration.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Songwriter review – portrait of Ed Sheeran as an obsessive, smiley Kermit | Berlin film festival 2018