Murray Cummings, director of the Ed Sheeran documentary Songwriter, also happens to be the subject’s cousin. The two describe themselves as closer than they are with any of their other relatives, and that’s very apparent. The documentary is set up almost like a home movie, with actual home video footage of Sheeran as a child on display while Sheeran and Cummings discuss how close they are.
The documentary mostly chronicle’s Sheeran’s work on his recent album, Divide. However, early on, we see him writing a separate song that should be familiar to some: “Love Yourself,” which was famously recorded by Justin Bieber. The fact that Sheeran writes the pop hits of other well-loved artists is something I think a lot of people don’t know about him (his other undercover hits include, but are not limited to, “Little Things” by One Direction, “Strip That Down” by Liam Payne, and “I Was Made For Loving You” by Tori Kelly). The film follows him as he pens “Love Yourself” on the fly, crafting the song on a tour bus immediately after leaving an arena where he’s just performed in concert, as he’s on the way to a makeshift mini recording studio with producer Benny Blanco to record the demo for that very tune. He’s always working on something.
From the recording of the Bieber hit, the film cuts to the first location Sheeran goes to for the creation of Divide, before he announces a social media hiatus on Instagram and disappears for exactly one year. He spends a good bit of time in a secluded house with many other artists and musicians where we witness him create the Divide hits “Barcelona,” “Dive,” and “Nancy Mulligan.” However, every artist takes a much-needed break sooner or later, and after writing a few songs, Sheeran travels the world with his friends and his fiancé, Cherry Seaborn. Throughout the process of recording, he also takes the time to visit his old grade school to talk to aspiring musicians. It was at that school where many years ago he happened to win the superlative of “Most Likely To Be Famous.” How crazy is that?
Songwriter also takes us into a tour rehearsal, which is just Sheeran, a loop pedal, his guitar, and an occasional piano. This is, in my opinion, one of the lesser-known but more important facts about Sheeran’s live performances. Of course, for people who have never seen him in a live concert, they only know him for his live TV appearances where he has to have backing band. However, each of Sheeran’s songs is set up in concert as he goes along, or before he starts, recording vocals and chords on the loop pedal, using his guitar as a drum and then playing each part back when necessary with his feet. It’s absolute insanity, but there’s no experience like it. People tend to think that Sheeran is just a guy with a guitar singing about love. Now, with Cummings giving us a look into his writing and rehearsal process, we get to see how untrue that really is.
With hits such as “Thinking Out Loud” and “Perfect” constantly playing on the radio, it’s easy to see how people who aren’t fans of Sheeran would think that all he writes are typical love songs. Songwriter presents the reality for anyone who hasn’t taken the time to listen to his albums in full or read up on the meaning behind some of the lesser known songs. From the doc, we learn about how “Nancy Mulligan” is a family story set to song, as Sheeran and Cummings tell friends about their grandparents’ forbidden love due to their religion, but how they got married anyway. Another under-appreciated track off of Divide is “Supermarket Flowers,” which is about the passing of Sheeran’s grandmother told from the perspective of his own mother. In Songwriter, Sheeran plays the track for his father for the first time and discusses how it’s not yet time to play it for his own mother, as his grandmother’s passing was too recent to present her with such a heavy song.
Songwriter offers more than just the story of a pop star that people either love or love to hate. The film follows an artist at work, someone who realizes that he needs to take a step back from the madness of experiencing life through screens and see the real world and what it has to offer, even if that means taking a hiatus from social media — normally such an important part of his life since it’s his only way to stay in touch with his loving and beloved fans. We see someone who is completely and utterly dedicated to creating what he believes is the best album that he’s put out to date.
The doc appears to be a passion project for both director and subject, as they’ve been filming since the beginning of Sheeran’s career. But it never comes off as a statement of “this is my famous cousin, look how talented he is.” Songwriter shows us an artist who made the choice to unplug from the world to do something so simple as live his life, spend time with the people he loves, and create something that he knew he would be immensely proud of. No matter your opinion of Sheeran’s music, one thing that anyone can take away from this doc is that artists today aren’t all narcissists who only care about the fame that their music gets them. Ed Sheeran is truly dedicated to his craft, and he and his fans are lucky to have Cummings in turn so dedicated to sharing this proof of that commitment with the world.