Dutch Director Daan van den Berg’s short documentary ‘The Song’ tells the story of American singer-songwriter David Olney.
Every few years, Olney tours through the Netherlands but in 2018 he began to struggle with physical issues that would ultimately affect this love. Having passed away on stage in early 2020, ‘The Song’ traces Olney’s final tour of the Netherlands.
>Screening as part of IN-EDIT’s short film programme, ‘The Song’ allows viewers to enter the intimate world of David Olney while also unraveling the creative process of a singular artist. Here, Daan van den Berg gives us insight into the process he used to create ‘The Song’, its challenges, and more.
How were you first introduced to the film’s subject/theme?
About 15 years ago I was first introduced to more ‘serious’ music; music that requires you to listen (it might require some effort) and that is not often heard on the radio. I started to listen to Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen..singer-songwriters. Then I heard a name on TV; Mickey Newbury, on a show about soccer. I looked into it and was immediately hooked. I came to know a genre that is best known as Americana but is actually a genre that combines most types of roots music like country, blues, rock&roll, and folk. I began to dig into it; Mickey Newbury led me to Townes van Zandt and that led me, through a radio show called ‘Muziek voor Volwassenen’ to David Olney. The first time I heard Olney’s music I was curious. I heard more songs by him and I heard that it was the same man singing, but was completely off guard that one man could produce such a range of music and themes that was so good. I began to listen to all his albums.
In 2013 I realized for the first time that artists like Olney are touring. Even though they never a really big audience, they have a small but loyal audience in the Netherlands. I say small, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t big enough for artists to come over. And luckily, Olney had a tour coming. So I went there and it was fantastic! Not only that; I could just approach my favorite artist and shake his hand. He took the time to listen and he seemed genuinely touched that we liked his music.
I saw him a couple of times more; he toured in 2014 and 2016 and both of the times he was great, but each time he managed to deliver a completely different performance. What was the same were some people in the audience. This made me wonder about the artist and the audience; what was the link between them?
In 2018 I saw he had another upcoming tour and I had done a lot of research by then so we were ready to make a film about Olney.
Why did you want to make this particular film about this particular subject?
As mentioned above I became curious when I saw Olney multiple times. There were more people doing that and I came to understand why. Not only was Olney great, but each concert felt so different and so new.
Sure, he had new songs each time, but he also did some of the same songs. Like ‘If My Eyes Were Blind’; a trademark song, but each time that song sounded a little different. Sometimes it was performed as a sad song, sometimes it was a resilient song about going on and he even made it some sort of rock anthem that sounded happy.
I saw more artists and there are a lot of great performers coming, singing to sometimes only 50 people in a bar in the Netherlands. ‘Just a man or woman with a guitar’ are often capable of telling much richer stories than you hear on over-produced music on the radio. But Olney and his music stood for the richness of the music itself and my love for that music had really grown when I got to know him as an artist, so he had to be the subject of the film.
I wanted to know why Olney came back year after year and how he did it. And one thing I noticed; he always tells stories about others, but in a way, only he could tell them. So in what way are those stories actually about him?
How did you approach the narrative structure and final “look” of the film?
The narrative structure was something we had in mind from the beginning with one important factor; let the storyteller himself tell the story. And we would ‘follow him around’. I knew that Olney had some great perspective on the world, proven by a lot of his songs which often have strange subjects (example; the story of the titanic as told by the iceberg). So we tried to look at the world the way he did.
It turned out that we really couldn’t go into this as deep as we had hoped, for Olney suddenly got some serious health issues right before coming on tour. So automatically we also made the film more about him, about age and about being more fragile but still doing the things you love most.
Strangely that didn’t even turn the attention much away from the film, because, as Olney himself says in the film: “the stories about people he made up are actually his own but by proxy.”
Even though we still ‘followed’ him around, it was obvious to anyone involved that we wanted to go for a ‘film’ look; widescreen and handheld shots. A reason for this is that Olney always drew you into his story while on stage. So we used that idea to frame the world and let him guide you through it. Slowly. And as often as possible we still used his perspective.
What was the most difficult aspect of completing the film?
That has to be during the shoot. Olney was a true gentleman and he rocked on stage, but we saw he was fragile. That was tough and we had to change our planning often. Not that he didn’t want to do as much as we had planned; he just couldn’t.
And it was tough that he was (still is) one of my hero’s, so making a film about him in a vulnerable moment was not always easy.
In the end, we are very glad we made the film, with his (sudden) passing in January this year. So, in the end, I think we did the right thing, but it gave it all a meaning we hadn’t anticipated.
What is your favorite music documentary?
That would be a tie between ‘Heartworn Highways’, which is a very honest film about the same ‘crowd’ of people that David Olney worked in and ‘No Direction Home’ which is an almost epic journey through time when Bob Dylan reinvented himself and changed music forever. Both of them are actually about artists defying commercialism in music in their own way and I think that really defines for me the distinction between commerce and music – no matter how popular the artist is.
‘The Song’ screens as part of IN-EDIT’s short film programme alongside Ira Hoefsmid’s ‘Twenty-Seven’, Jor Hendrix’ ‘Wall of Sound’, and Katinka Schlette’s ‘Diggin Demos’
– Steve Rickinson