Meet Hugh Oliver: poet, songwriter, Torontonian, octogenarian.
DIRECTED BY MARCO DIFELICE
Early in Marco DiFelice’s The Ballad of Hugh, Hugh Oliver—an 82-year-old Toronto-based poet, sculptor, and singer-songwriter—shares his curious origin story, beginning with his conception. His father, he confesses, wasn’t so happy to hear of his wife’s pregnancy, and promptly booked her a skiing trip to Switzerland in the hopes that an innocent tumble might cause her to miscarry. No such luck. To his father’s dismay, the musician tells us, “that was the beginning.”
A more prosaic artist would have started with his first gig or recording session, but Oliver is an offbeat soul, genuinely odd and utterly without affectation. DiFelice’s profile of his old friend, whom he met backstage after a show years ago, is appropriately endearing. Despite the title, it isn’t a ballad so much as a warm hug.
For a debut feature, the film is surprisingly nuanced. Its refusal to marginalize Oliver’s odd turns of phrase and idiosyncratic songwriting is a refreshing departure from the tendency of rock docs to treat unsung cult acts as curios. The filmmaker clearly sees the film as an opportunity to expose his subject to an audience wider than his usual Friday-night crew at the Tranzac. DiFelice (who is also a musician) makes good on that promise with lengthy, cleanly framed performance footage, shot in the Queen West studio where Oliver recorded his newest release, …And All That Crap.
Not all of DiFelice’s decisions pay off as handsomely. The director’s occasional voice-over narration is an odd misstep, and his attempts to characterize his subject as a young artist in an old man’s body have a whiff of didacticism about them. Still, it’s Oliver’s voice that matters here, and it’s an enchanting one.