Shirley Collins in The Ballad of Shirley Collins (2017)

THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS is a touching story of an important voice lost and found

Following their award-winning documentary WAY OF THE MORRIS, filmmakers Rob Curry and Tim Plester return to the screen with THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS, a lyrical response to the life and work of folk music icon Shirley Collins.

Loosely based on Shirley’s autobiography AMERICA OVER THE WATER, THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS explores the story behind one of the important British folk singers of the 20th century. Alongside her sister Dolly, Shirley stood at the epicentre of the folk music revival during the 1960s and 70s until a neurological disorder called dysphonia robbed her of her voice and forced her into early retirement in 1980. Thirty years later, the female folk legend recalls her personal story, her love for music and her battle to rediscover the voice she lost so many years previously.

Intimate, moving and ultimately fascinating, THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS is a touching story of an important voice lost and found. Deliberately eschewing the straightforward biopic approach, filmmakers Curry and Plester blend cinematic reconstruction with audio archive and live performance to deliver a meditative and richly textured portrait about the first lady of folk.

In many ways, THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS feels more like time-travelling transatlantic road-movie than a documentary. Audio footage from Shirley’s seminal road-trip around America’s Deep South alongside her then-lover and pre-eminent ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, is mixed with reconstructed video footage, old letters, yellowing photographs and old home movie footage to paint a vivid picture of the musicians and songs they collected along the way, music which would later inspire the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU.

In the same manner in which Shirley and Lomax visited the houses of folk singers, musicians of the modern age also visit and perform with Shirley in her Sussex home, including David Tibet of Current 93 and superfan Stewart Lee, whose conversations provide inroads into the film’s backstory. Instead of adopting the usual talking heads style, Curry and Plester opt to present these interviews in a more cinematic way, filming the action from interesting angles and juxtaposing the audio with often unrelated images.

But the most interesting part of Shirley’s journey is her battle to rediscover the voice she lost so many years previously. At the grand old age of 80 and after more than thirty years after losing her unique singing voice, Shirley is coaxed out of retirement to record a new album LODESTAR and it is here where we truly see the real Shirley. Twitching with nerves, Shirley battles not only the physical strain of retraining her voice, but also her own emotions and inner demons, giving the story an added element of pathos, as it reflects on the fragility of the human condition.

Yet, while THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS is certainly a moving piece of work, the film feels very much a personal project for Curry and Plester, born out of their love for folk music. The film stands as a salutary reminder of the importance of folk tradition, reflecting on its value and meaning. As such, the film is unlikely to appeal to a wider audience, especially those who know little about folk music or its singers.

That said, Shirley makes for a fascinating documentary subject, telling the story of her life with affection, passion and seemingly without ego.

3 out of 5 stars

THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS makes its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on 13 October and is on general release in the UK on 20 October 2017.