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Saturday, October 6, 2012

"A Skin Too Few", the mystery of Nick Drake

A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake

How can you make a music documentary when the subject, the band/artist you want to talk about has no "documents", aside songs, of course, on which you can support your film? You probably have only two options: one is filling the gap with hundreds of opinions/assessments from music journalists, other musicians and "cool people" in general. The other choice is just focus on the people that really knew the artist, and we the story is told, end the film (in only 48 minutes!). That's the path taken by Jeroen Berkvens on "A Skin Too Few", an impressionistic and very very intimate attempt to shed some light into the superb English folk singer/songwriter Nick Drake.

With the exception of some off-voices at the very beginning of the rockumentary, pointing out the qualities and legacy of Nick Drake's music, and the short comment from mod-father Paul Weller, "A Skin Too Few" the film develops using the chronology of the musician's short life (1948-1974). So we will begin in Burma, where the artist was born, to follow his childhood in Warwickshire, then teenage and adult years in Cambridge and London, and finally back home in Tanworth before where he sadly took his life (accidentally or not) when he was just 26. The insights are provided by his older sister's Gabrielle Drake (who is the pivotal element of the film), with the occasional comments of the recorded voices of his now defuncts parents. There are not a lot of anecdotes or trivial moments from childhood memories, and music appears quite soon on the conversation.  

As we enter the adult period on which Nick Drake becomes an incredibly gifted musician, we also get the opinions of a couple of friends, his producer, arranger, sound engineer, and the photographer of his albums sleeves. That's how we get to know about his guitar playing style, the presence of music on his family, the wonder of recording his songs (the faces on the scene with collaborators John Wood and Robert Kirby says it all, the joy of recording the music, but also the utter sadness of his finale) and also his disastrous first and last tour, the lack of commercial success and his depression and retirement from society. 

I used the word impressionistic before because the film doesn't want to speculate about the reasons of his death or lack of success, but setting a mood, a tone, an imagery. His tunes are the only soundtrack, and the director uses the landscapes of London, the Warwickshire countryside as well as his house and even the room, packed with the few pictures and memories available, as the only visual anchorage. It's quite amazing that with so little, Berkvens is able to be quite touching with his movie.

Being such an honest documentary, don't expect the film providing any revelation. If any, it confirms Nick Drake mystery: no one really knew him, so not even the closest testimonies possible are able to explain how such a talented person was so troubled with the world. Maybe it was too sensitive for it, as his sister's say? We will never know. But at least, his gorgeous music will never leave us. In that regard, a final praise of the closing scene, where the composition of images of Tanworth with "Northern Sky", suddenly reduced to just his voice is an enduring and compelling closure.

Too short (don't think some comments about his music's legacy and influence would have harmed the film) but very moving and special documentary. Highly recommendable. Please listen to Nick Drake.

SCORE: 7/10

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