Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Skin Too Few

Jeroen Berkvens' 1999 documentary A Skin Too Few takes its title from a remark Gabrielle Drake has often made about her brother Nick, trying to describe why he found it so hard to cope with the world. This film is everything other Nick Drake documentaries are not - a raw heart-tugging document of a young man's terrible trouble adjusting to the pressures of growing up, being uncommonly talented and unreasonably sensitive at the same time. The film shows testimony from family and close friends and associates, illustrating Drake's slow turn away from the world into his own mind where demons of depression lurked and eventually overpowered him.

Unlike Nick Drake Under Review this film does not rely so much on assessments from other musicians or journalists/biographers. In fact the only other musician we hear from is Paul Weller whom we see in the opening scene in a recording studio w. John Wood and Robert Kirby, two of Drake's very close collaborators. Weller never knew Drake, nor does he have much to say about him, so I wonder why he has to appear at all, but never mind...

Rather, we should be very grateful for what we get from this film instead: a very moving portrait of a man and an artist who was very deeply rooted in a loving, supportive environment, both in terms of family and friends and his fellow professionals in the music world. We follow Drake's life chronologically, virtually from cradle to grave, and the main narrator of this story is his older sister Gabrielle, supplemented by the taped voices of both Rodney and Molly, their parents, telling us of events that Gabrielle did not herself witness.

It is quite interesting to get the whole story of the Drakes' time in Burma and to hear Gabrielle speak of Nick's birth and the easy life of a colonial well-to-do family in the late 1940s - illustrated by home movies of a happy family. Her assessment of Molly as a troubled soul, buoyed up by the love of her husband who made life livable for Molly without strangling her creativity is very poignant. The footage then takes us to Tanworth-in-Arden and inside the magically named childhood home of Nick, Far Leys, where we follow the camera into Nick's room, see his wonderful round window, while the soundtrack plays a home recording of "Hazey Jane I" (in a much more rocking version than the Bryter Layter version - a very cool performance by Nick), the camera then panning to a view of a fruit tree out of the window. The images thus already prefigure the theme of home, longing, escape, failure, return, sadness which structures the whole narrative of the film.

Gabrielle then plays one of Molly's songs, again emphasizing the very strong relation between Molly and her son, both in terms of the similarities of their temper and talent, and in terms of her maternal love. Over the sound of Molly's song we hear the train clickety-clacking, signalling Nick's departure to Cambridge which is the next period to be narrated by the film. The use of the train in image and sound is another unifying feature of the film, recurring throughout...

Brian Wells, a Cambridge friend of Nick Drake's, narrates the next portion, a story of dope smoking, guitar playing - in effect a 3 year holiday for the young men. In contrast, Gabrielle reads from a letter from Nick to his parents on liking Cambridge more than before, claiming to have "thrown off one or two rather useless and restrictive complexes that I'd picked up before coming here". One of course wonders where and when...? Gabrielle's stock of letters from Nick would certainly be superlative material for a sincere biographer to have access to. "River Man" is played over footage of Cambridge streets - people coming and going as the lyrics also detail. On tape Rodney speaks of Nick's Cambridge nostalgia, and of his desire that Nick should have a degree as a safety net, whereas Nick insisted that that was the one thing he would rather not have...

The scene shifts to London as Gabrielle remembers Nick one day coming home to their flat, tossing copies of Five Leaves Left on the bed - to her amazement, since she never realized that he was recording a whole LP. This portion continues with musical testimonials from producer Joe Boyd talking about Nick's skills and reliability as a player, Robert Kirby speaking of his arrangements ('lonely and bleak') complementing the perfect guitar line, which John Wood, the engineer, illustrates on the mixing board (playing the raw tracks of "Chime of a City Clock"). As the song plays on the soundtrack in its fully finished version, the images illustrate the song with night footage of rainy London street, segueing into the well known stills of Drake standing motionless against a wall as other pedestrians rush by.

Next, Boyd talks about Nick quitting touring in frustration over audiences being indifferent or hostile. Wells tells an anecdote about Nick slipping into isolation and depression. One of his most upbeat songs, "When Day Is Done", illustrates Nick's next move "back where you've begun," as the lyrics read. Wells remembers Nick returning home to Tanworth, and his being ashamed at having failed to live and cope in London. Drake was hospitalized, and diagnosed as clinically depressed, whereas Wells sees Nick's condition more as an existential crisis, brought on by the coldness and futility of life as such.

We next hear a recording of Molly, quoting Nick: "I don't like it at home, but I can't bear it anywhere else..." Molly concludes that Nick had "given up on the world", and she recalls her utter inability to help him overcome his sense of acute failure at everything he had ever tried to do. Gabrielle explains it like this: "I never did see a change - it crept up on us..." "He saw more, and he became more silent as he saw more." "That is expressed in his songs and almost nowhere else..." This sequence of the film is very dark, also in terms of images of the night, storms, even featuring Gabrielle dressed in black - all quite effective emotionally, as one understands the tragedy of his family not being equipped to help Drake at all. Love was not enough.

Boyd talks about trying to get Drake to seek help from a psychiatrist, but Nick being ashamed of such a course of action. Later Boyd details Nick's outburst against his lack of success, making an analogy between Nick's anger directed towards Boyd, and the lyrics to the song "Hanging on a Star" ("Why leave me hanging on a star when you deem me so high?") As Nick sings the desolate lyrics to "Know": "Know that I love you, Know I don't care, Know that I see you, Know I'm not there" we pan to the supernatural beauty of the English woodlands in misty, early morning shots, another technique Berkvens uses to great effect, showing the incongruousness between Nick's surroundings and his self-image.

Keith Morris, photographer for the Drake albums, remembers the Pink Moon sessions, especially Nick's almost total silence which contrasts dramatically with earlier occasions where they had worked together. The images taken during that session are shown with no musical accompaniment. The film shifts to Gabrielle reciting Molly Drake's poem "The Shell," describing how both Molly and her son had problems sensing the world directly without the feeling of being imprisoned in a shell - this is accompanied by images of Gabrielle placed in the woods as a stylized, tragic figure herself - obviously practising her actor's craft here...

We are next treated to English woodland and village scenes - evincing the same stylized beauty, as Drake finally sings "Hanging on a Star". The camera takes us again to Nick's room, and a montage of both parents' voices narrates the last night of Nick's life (we see Nick's round window increasingly freeze over during this narration). Molly remembers the final night and next morning - the agony of never having known how dangerous the Triptozol pills were, the inevitability of finding him dead that morning. Gabrielle remembers being in a comedy play in Bristol at the time, and how her parents drove down to tell her of Nick's death. As she tells us this, we see the room scene again, and Berkvens uses the out of the window motif, as Nick sings of the "endless summer nights" (from Pink Moon's "From the Morning"), escaping his shell for good.

Gabrielle's theory of Nick's death is that it was a spontaneous act - whether suicide or cry for help she could never determine... (We see the interior of the Tanworth-in-Arden church as a service ends.) Gabrielle muses on the blessings of having had such a family and the tragedy of losing them. Kirby relates his feeling of being shocked at the news of Drake's death, whereas Wood felt terribly sad, but not surprised...

The closing scene begins with Nick's voice on tape, apologetic that his voice is failing - but he promises to do one more song. Over images of Tanworth "Northern Sky" plays, and suddenly the music is lowered so we hear Nick's naked voice, as we see his headstone in the church yard. The sequence ends with an impossibly beautiful shot of the church in the distance.

Gabrielle closes the film by talking of Nick's recent fame, and the helping quality of Nick's music for so many young people of later generations ("had he only known..."). As "Northern Sky" closes, we end with the Drake family home movies - filled by images of Nick's happy childhood. The soundtrack ends with sounds of waves and moving trains.

I find the film very well made, especially as it allows itself to have a narrative that veers from the straight documentary aesthetics and into techniques borrowed from fiction: the use of leit motifs, colouring, sound effects etc. This enhances the film's emotional impact greatly and it is hard to not be very moved by its otherwise familiar story. I am very impressed by Gabrielle Drake's role in the film which she virtually carries single-handedly - both as a trustworthy narrator and as a great actress using her craft to play on our emotions. The 48 minutes spent with the Drake family are very enriching and enlightening.

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