A tender, yet often unadventurous, concert-film tribute, Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert For Kate McGarrigle documents singer-songwriters Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s 2011 show at New York’s The Town Hall to honor their famed Canadian folk-musician mother, Kate McGarrigle. Having passed away from cancer in 2010, McGarrigle left behind a legacy of famed songwriting (much of it done with her older sisters Anna and Jane) for herself as well as artists such as Judy Collins and Emmylou Harris, the latter of whom is one of many luminaries who appears at the gala event headlined by Martha and Rufus. The Wainwrights’ performances are infused with both reverence and love, and they’re accompanied on the bill by the likes of Norah Jones and (somewhat strangely) Jimmy Fallon, who exhibit a heartfelt enthusiasm and passion that does justice to McGarrigle’s songs, most of them sparse but soulful guitar- and/or piano-driven affairs. Lian Lunson’s camera allows the music to take center stage via straightforward, graceful compositions—close-ups and medium shots dominate, and edits are kept to a relative minimum—that allow for long, unbroken views of the artists at forceful, mournful work.
Amid this live material, Lunson includes interviews with Rufus, Martha, and others in which McGarrigle is described as kind and generous. Still, despite archival footage and photos of her both in concert and with her family, the eponymous musician remains a somewhat distant presence throughout. More frustrating than the film’s inability to impart a full-bodied portrait of its subject, though, is a more general directorial ordinariness. Sing Me The Songs fluctuates between lush color and elegant black and white with little rhyme or reason; while upbeat songs are more likely to be presented in vibrant hues, and more somber ones receive the monochromatic treatment, the device seems too haphazard to resonate as more than a stylistic tick. Though gracefully segueing between the past and present to express Rufus, Martha, and company’s profound sense of loss and longing, the director otherwise too rarely conveys content through form. As such, the largely static concert footage—defined by restrained and predictable cinematographic choices—leaves the proceedings feeling lovely but too conservative, with the director capturing the plaintive beauty of McGarrigle’s work and yet rarely expressing its pent-up yearning, sorrow, and joy through matching aesthetics.