Even though he let director Douglas Arrowsmith follow him around for seven years of his life, Ron Sexsmith never became truly comfortable during the filming of Love Shines. As a result, when the critically lauded Canadian singer-songwriter was finally invited to screen a rough cut of the film, he went in prepared for the worst.
“I hadn’t really seen any footage at all until a few months ago,” Sexsmith says on the line from his Toronto home. “We had a sit-down at the beginning of the summer and, to be honest, I was just dreading it. I’m like a lot of people: I don’t really enjoy seeing myself on TV. But I ended up pleasantly surprised.”
Watch a preview for Love Shines.
There’s an easy explanation for why he liked what he saw. More than a fan letter from an admitted hard-core Sexsmith disciple, Love Shines is an in-depth character study of one of Canada’s most respected—and often underappreciated—talents. Arrowsmith started out making a film about Sexsmith’s dream of playing Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall. Along the way, the project became something more, surprising even the guy who was at its centre.
“It seemed like the whole point of the film was me trying to play Massey Hall,” Sexsmith says. “And when we finally did that, I was like, ”˜Okay, great—there’s your movie and we’ve got the happy ending.’ But then he kept on filming.”
The result is a film that focuses on Sexsmith attempting to escape his status as a cult favourite, most recently by enlisting the services of hit-making producer Bob Rock. In part tracking the 2009 recording of the veteran artist’s upcoming album, Love Shines gives viewers an often-fascinating window into the creative process.
“For me, what I was hoping for in the film was that I wanted to document ”˜the gift’,” Arrowsmith notes, reached by phone in Hogtown. “And I got to witness something extraordinary—the making of this new album with Bob Rock. I think you really get to see creativity at work and get into that raw state where the songs are so elemental and beginning.”
What makes Love Shines so engaging is the way it exposes the insecurities, self-doubt, and worries of the man who’s been hailed as a genius by artists like Steve Earle and Elvis Costello, both of whom are interviewed in the film. Sexsmith is eventually revealed as a man who’s convinced that he’s never lived up to his considerable potential. He also proves himself to be more self-aware than most rock stars; one of the most poignant moments in Love Shines has him admitting that being a songwriter is the only thing he’s ever been really good at.
“I think Ron has never been shy about his personal story,” Arrowsmith says. “I think he’s aware of his professional story. He’s a very modest guy who has this genius that he’s trying to manage.”
Indeed, what comes through most in Love Shines is Sexsmith’s humility. Asked if he learned anything about himself from the film, the singer laughs and suggests that seeing himself on-screen made him aware that he’s heavier than he’d like to be.
“For me, it comes down to vanity, in a way,” he says. “I was like, ”˜Whoa, I have to get back in the swimming pool because I’ve got work to do.’ It’s kind of hard to remove yourself from the fact there’s a story going on. Obviously I’m trying to follow that, but then I’m also seeing myself in a movie and feeling like I’m coming across really awkwardly.”
Human might be a better description for Sexsmith. In one of the film’s must-see sequences, we catch the singer backstage before the filming of a songwriter-in-the-round television appearance with Costello, Sheryl Crow, and Neko Case. Convinced that he doesn’t play well on TV, Sexsmith is beyond nervous, to the point where Crow has to calm him down.
“Ron has a ritual, which includes a bit of the pacing that you see,” Arrowsmith says. “Those moments in the film are where I’m alone with him and the camera. I found those moments very emotional because they are so pure.”
If Sexsmith has a message for those who’ll view this behind-the-scenes look into his world, it’s that fans not read too much into the fact that he often seems more than a little down. Despite how he sometimes comes across in Love Shines, he suggests that he’s doing just fine.
“It’s surreal that there’s even a movie about me at all,” Sexsmith says. “Toronto is a very alt-this and indie-that kind of town. Whatever scene is going on, I’ve always felt like I’m on the outside looking in. So hearing all these people say these nice things in my movie, I don’t know, it’s just good for my heart or something.”
Love Shines screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 8, 9, and 15.