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BFI London Film Festival Review: Stunning, Moving Edwyn Collins Documentary ‘The Possibilities Are Endless’

BFI London Film Festival Review: Stunning, Moving Edwyn Collins Documentary 'The Possibilities Are Endless'

Documentaries focusing on rock musicians are not known, generally speaking, for their formal daring. They start off with some concert footage, intersperse talking head interviews and archive video of roadies loading up and band-members hanging out in green rooms. Tour buses. Radio stations. The same kind of iconography that’s been the focus of these films for decades. There have been a handful of exceptions over the years, of course, and the latest, hot on the heels of terrific, innovative Nick Cave doc “20,000 Days On Earth,” is “The Possibilities Are Endless.” But then, it’s debatable whether you can call it an entry into the genre at all.

The film does focus on a well-known musician, in this case Edwyn Collins. The Scottish star, if you’re not aware already, began his career as the frontman of seminal Scottish post-punk band Orange Juice, before going on to a successful solo career, best exemplified with unlikely 1994 worldwide smash “A Girl Like You” (the film even opens, in a rare nod to convention, with Collins being interviewed by a terrifyingly young Conan O’Brien). But in 2005, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, causing him to have a stroke. He was in a coma for six months, and woke suffering from severe aphasia, with limited physical movement and severe language difficulties.

Indeed, he was initially only able to say four phrases: “yes,” “no,” “Grace Maxwell” (the name of his wife and manager), and, for reasons that no one can explain, “the possibilities are endless.” Collins was expected never to perform or write music again, and yet in the decade since, he’s released two new (and very good) albums, and performed a number of gigs. But the filmmakers behind “The Possibilities Are Endless,” Edward Lovelace and James Hall, are more interested in Collins’ state of mind after his stroke, and in the hard road to recovery. The result is a boldly experimental film, as much tone poem as biography, one that melds fiction and fact with fascinating results, and it’s thought-provoking and brilliantly moving stuff.

The opening 20 minutes or so of the film have more in common with, say, “Under The Skin” than with something like “Mistaken For Strangers.” Abstract images and broken language (from Collins himself initially) hit, almost overwhelminglythe singer’s home town of Helmsdale, the sea, a boy underwaterbefore falteringly coming into focus. We hear Collins, his speech still clearly affected, describe his memory loss, his struggle against his own body and mind. The voice of Grace, Collins’ wife, emerges too, filling in some of the gaps, quietly, and often wittily, explaining her own devestation, and the way she never lost hope as Collins found his way back to her.

Perhaps the most striking moment here is when, after the sheer, palpable effort it’s clearly taken to say what he’s had to say, Collins slips easily into his distinctive baritone and belts out on a old song. This, at least, comes easily. After the first reel or so, the film becomes a little more conventional: we actually see Collins and Grace on screen, walk through their home and the recording studio, and even eventually see Collins perform with his bandmates.

But the film retains a unique rhythm and tone, with some of Edwyn and Grace’s backstory being illuminated by a fictionalized, present-day love-story featuring Yasmin Paige from “Submarine” and a young newcomer whose striking resemblance to the film’s subject proves to be no accident, as it loops back around and connects with the non-fiction narrative. You hesitate to call it a reconstruction (in part because it’s not copying any actual events)it’s just one of a series of tools that Lovelace and Hall use so that you don’t just see the journey that Collins has been on, you understand it on a profound level.

This is a film about many things. The restorative power of music, a longing for nature and for your home. The impossibly fragile state of the human brain, which can nearly kill you for no reason, then allow you to fight your way back and start again. But, above anything else, it’s a love story between Edwyn and Grace. She’s devoted, but wryly funny, and possibly a little tired of being in his shadow; he’s starting to become more avuncular again (and there are hints that he wasn’t the easiest person to live with before his illness). But they remain head-over-heels for each other, and it’s one of the most touching relationships we’ve seen on screen in a long time.

Stunningly photographed by Richard Stewart (“McCullin“), and gorgeously scored by Collins and a handful of collaborators, “The Possibilities are Endless” is one of the most distinctive, formally experimental and moving documentaries we’ve seen in a long time. The subject’s status as a cult figure rather than a megastar might cause some to overlook it, but this is as universal a story as “The Diving Bell & The Butterfly,” and one that demands to be seen. [A]

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