Director: Bill Morris
Wild Islands Media
I’ve enjoyed some of Donna Dean’s music but I really enjoyed this version of her life story, a documentary about her travel through America, her early life in New Zealand, the redemptive power of the country music she sought out as both means to deal with life and to escape from it.
Shot by fellow musician and journeyman artist/filmmaker Bill Morris, The Sound of Her Guitar is a documentary that is worth seeing. No prior knowledge of Dean’s music is necessary, and plenty of music is there in the film – so this serves as a method of discovery. There’s no burden of entry.
We begin travelling through America, and this is no glamour gig, it’s schlepping gear to radio station interviews, setting up quickly on small stages and playing background music with a hope of it taking over the conversation. We start in America because that is the home of the music that Dean loves – and it is where she has had most success; American artist Rhonda Vincent covered one of her songs – she is making the kind of country music that feels utterly authentic, yet she doesn’t put on an American accent to tale her home-grown tales in their language.
From there we come back to New Zealand to trace Dean’s roots. She learned to love music through her parents, both were fans and players. But it was a tough life and the story turns to domestic violence, abuse, addiction – and it is brutal. As a teenager Dean was out of school and then pregnant and then locked in a violent relationship. The cycle repeated.
And then in the late 1980s she found herself on stage – and the power of performance and audience applause – became a saving grace. From there it was to study music hard, through albums, through songwriting courses, through performing. Graft. Hard graft. Work. Work. More work.
What is most powerful about the sometimes stark imagery here – Auckland’s state houses in the 1950s and 60s, the actual music within/outside “The Music Industry” – is that any hint of glamour or luck has been removed; there’s no luck here. Just work. An honesty you barely ever get from music documentaries. So many feel like versions of “how the other half live” – in fact they become the stories of 1-percenters. And that’s just not real.
Donna Dean’s story is almost uncomfortably real. The comfort, for her, has come through the music. The Sound of Her Guitar is brave and beautiful and it also doesn’t outstay its welcome, Morris knowing just how much of the story to share and how to tell it. Brave to all involved. This is must-see documentary film-making.
The Sound of Her Guitar is part of this year’s Documentary Edge Festival in New Zealand. The festival’s films screen in Wellington May 4-5, 2016 and in Auckland May 18-29, 2016.