Reflecting on songs and sorrow
New documentary follows Catherine MacLellan’s quest to learn more about her father
It’s been a period of reflection for Prince Edward Island artist Catherine MacLellan.
For three years she’s worked with Millefiore Clarkes, an Island film producer, on a new film, “The Song and The Sorrow,” after Clarkes approached her about making a documentary about her father, Gene MacLellan, and his struggles with mental illness.
“It was an interesting feeling to have these conversations about my Dad and his depression. I’ve always lived to be very truthful and as the questions being asked got deeper and deeper you felt very vulnerable. It was also interesting because you were answering these questions with full honesty, not just what people wanted to hear.”
MacLellan says one of the biggest surprises was that she wasn’t surprised by what people had to say.
“They all said he was this great guy and musician. I was hoping to learn new things, but a lot of it was comments I’d heard before.
“I brought the mental health aspect into it. And we just started from there.”
MacLellan was hoping that through talking to his friends, they would have something to add to the conversation about mental health.
Gene MacLellan was an iconic Canadian musician who wrote and sang songs like “Snowbird,” made famous by fellow Canadian Anne Murray, as well as “Put Your Hand in the Hand” and “The Call.” Other artists, such as Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby, also recorded MacLellan’s songs.
He died by suicide in January 1995. In a clip from the documentary it is revealed that Catherine was the person who found him.
“The truth was that my Dad was so good at hiding it that people didn’t know he had these feelings. And talking to these people who knew my Dad really well but didn’t know what he was going through made me realize how important it is to talk about mental health.”
She says opening the conversation has also helped with her own healing process of dealing with the father’s death.
“For a long time, I think, I was chasing who I thought he was. And I thought if I asked those questions I was going to lose him.
“But in singing his songs I learned that’s where he still is. He’s not in anybody’s version of him and he’s not in my version of him. He’s left these gifts behind for us to listen to. My relationship with my Dad isn’t over. It’s still growing and changing.”
MacLellan says working on the film has allowed her to see the importance of creating an open conversation about mental health for her daughter and her family.
“That’s the biggest thing I can do for my daughter, so she knows she can go through life without feeling ashamed because she feels … whatever.”
MacLellan’s nephew, Emmet, 16, says he’s excited to see the film.
“It will be another way for me to see and learn things about my grandfather. I never got to meet him. I’m really proud of [Catherine] and everybody for making it.”
Clarkes, the writer and director, describes “The Sound and The Sorrow” as a lyrical, contemplative film that gestures to the issue of mental health.
“It’s also a really personal story about how Catherine tries to understand herself through this mysterious father figure. It’s an exploration of his musical career and his struggles that he was very reserved about.”
Clarkes says the experience has been one she’ll always remember.
“It’s been wonderful. I feel like [Catherine] and I are partners in this so it’s cool to have this sense of collaboration. There were so many people we got to meet. It took us to Anne Murray’s condo in Toronto, to Gene’s favourite bootlegging joint in North Rustico.”
“The Song and The Sorrow” is a 42-minute, mid-length film that will make the rounds at film festivals this fall. It opened Friday night at the Charlottetown Film Festival.
Catherine MacLellan plays one of her dad’s guitars. MacLellan, the daughter of the late music legend Gene MacLellan, explores his life in a new documentary.