Fans of cult icon Nick Drake have never seen a moving image of their hero at work on acoustic guitar. In the new film, A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake, director Jeroen Berkvens succeeds in bringing the British folk singer back to life (he died in 1974) by literally recreating the landscape on which he based his gentle but unique songs about time and seasons passing. The rural imagery is accompanied by some extraordinary found audio tape from the Drake family archive.
“I walked around with the wish to make a film on Nick,” explains Berkvens, who rode a motorcycle from his home in the Netherlands to Drake’s former home in Tanworth-in-Arden in rural England only to park himself in a pub there to ponder his first move. “It took a while because not only is there no moving footage, but everything was kind of absent. His parents had both died, the house was sold . . . the absence of everything transferred from a disadvantage to an advantage in my mind,” he says. “[Nick] was invisible and hard to grasp, so that was the basis on which I started the script.”
Very little is known about the life of Drake precisely because the songwriter was a recluse. A self-taught musician, Drake left his studies at Cambridge to pursue a music career in London; he shocked his friends and family with the quiet recording and release of his watershed chamber folk album, Five Leaves Left (1970). But even those who worked with Drake, like producer Joe Boyd and arranger Robert Kirby (both interviewed in the film), claim not to have really known him well. Two releases, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon, followed, but Drake, disenchanted with the music business, refused touring and returned to live at his parents home. According to his friends and family, Drake, having been diagnosed as a depressive accidentally overdosed on his prescription anti-depressant medication before putting himself to bed one night in 1974. (The coroner, however, ruled his death a suicide.)
By the early Eighties, Drake’s catalog (a fourth disc of unreleased material, Time of No Reply, was issued with the box set, Fruit Tree) had been discovered by collectors and musicians (R.E.M. sought out Boyd for the recording of Fables of the Reconstruction). By the Nineties a full swing Drake revival was in effect, culminating with the use of his song “Pink Moon” in a Volkswagon commercial. The time was finally right for a film.
Soliciting help from Drake’s sister Gabrielle, Berkvens was able to secure the rare home movies and audio tapes that bring the singer’s early years to life. “With Gabrielle, I searched through everything she had, letters, tapes, furniture,” he explains. Happening upon a VHS tape marked “Nick’s Christening,” Berkens felt his heart race as he asked Gabrielle about it. “‘But he is only a small child,’ she said, ‘Would that be interesting to you?'” Berkvens gave her a resounding yes because he knew that previous film projects had been rejected based on the absence of moving footage of Drake.
Yet, the most startling piece of tape in the film is not of Drake’s early recordings nor of the voices of his parents recounting his death (which they do in an interview Berkvens gleaned from a 1980 interview on Dutch radio). Rather, it is Gabrielle playing back a song by their mother Mollie revealing the most shocking new information in the Drake story: that unique sense of melody and composition with no peer in the English folk-rock of his day was most profoundly influenced by an obscure composer, his mother. Gabrielle plans to release the tape as part of a disc called Family Tree.
But rare baby footage and audio tape still do not make for a sufficient documentary. That’s when Berkvens set about recreating Drake’s world of gentle breezes and changing seasons. “When he writes, ‘Do you know the land living by the breeze/Can you understand the light among the trees,’ it dawned on me that his songs were full of imagery and clues to design the film. Themes like the passing of time and seasons come back in almost every song, as if he is a bystander, watching everything passing by, like a fly on the wall.”
Shot around the exterior of the Drake family home, Berkvens relied on the natural surroundings themselves, many of them as seen from the vantage point of Drake, looking out his bedroom window. He built a set of Drake’s bedroom based on photos provided by Gabrielle, replicating his belongings right down to the sheets on the bed. “A closer match to the original room from the early Seventies, you couldn’t have,” he claims. “I used the room in the film as a metaphor for protection, a skin if you will, and the windows are the eyes. The moment he dies the camera drifts out of the window into the new day.”
A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake is currently showing at theaters throughout England and will screen at the Nashville Independent film festival in April and at North by Northeast in Toronto in June. For venues check www.nickdrakefilm.com.