The Curious Works of Roger Doyle, Reviewed

There’s a scene a little ways into The Curious Works of Roger Doyle in which the electronic musician tries to recall kind words said to him many years before by a judge on the awards committee for the International Electro-Acoustic Music Competition.

After a couple of goes he lands on the phrase “you are the flowering of a seed that was never planted in your country”.

Roger Doyle’s emergence from Dublin and his skill as an electronic musician was a curio to the prize-givers in Bourges, France. When asked by director Brian Lally if Doyle can account for it – then or now – he just laughs and shakes his head and says, “No”.

In his conversations with Lally, Doyle is frank about the current state of his career. Despite critical acclaim and a cult following on the continent, major commercial success still eludes him.

The camera crew follows Doyle as he fills CD orders from his Bandcamp for posting. With a smile he reveals that his total earnings per year could afford him a cappuccino a day, not bad for a professional musician in this day and age he jests.

Doyle is one of those musicians who can guarantee interest from devotees of his work at home and internationally, but he’s definitely not a household name – although it’s clearly one of his biggest desires.

Later in the film, he plays us a sample of one of his favourite compositions from his computer and worries out loud that he may never get to play it for an audience in a large venue.

The first part of the film brings us up to speed with the who, what, where and when of Doyle’s life as Lally presents us with a blow-by-blow recap of Doyle’s career up to the present. The film initially feels front-loaded: the whirlwind tour through Doyle’s life and times makes it feel as though we’ve few other avenues to explore.

But there are further adventures for Doyle and the audience as The Curious Works of … finds a narrative hook in an upcoming opera, Heresy, based on the life of Giordano Bruno, with Doyle as composer. He speaks excitedly about his music reaching more than the same 40 people over and over, to the point that this bit of self-deprecation speaks to a genuine, burning desire.

Happily for Lally and the filmmakers, these 40 admirers happen to include a who’s who of Irish arts heavyweights. The talking heads that appear throughout the documentary include Doyle’s long-time collaborator and former Operating Theatre bandmate Olwen Fouéré, filmmakers Bob Quinn, Joe Comerford and Cathal Black, as well as the comedian and broadcaster Abie Philbin Bowman, brother of Doyle’s close friend, the late Jonathan Philbin Bowman.

Despite the differences in the interviewees’ works and their relationships with Doyle, there is a strand of commonality in how people view him and his work. Everyone feels that Roger Doyle’s brain operates in a singular manner.

“Music from the mothership” is how Fouéré describes his work. She posits that he’s picking up on distant alien radio waves as a source of information. It’s unclear if this is meant as a joke or not.

Elsewhere, Bob Quinn talks about Doyle’s score for his 1987 silent film Budawanny. Quinn communicated desired changes to the film’s score not through musical notation but by providing Doyle with imperial measurements: adjust it by an inch, make it a mile longer, and so on. These directions might have befuddled many a composer, but Doyle understood and produced the most remarkable element of Quinn’s unusual feature.

Cathal Black suggests that fame and fortune has passed Roger Doyle by because he has been too experimental for too long. The interview with Black comes at the end of a section about Doyle’s contribution to Irish film. This to me was the standout portion of Lally’s picture as it gives a good view of an exciting time in Ireland’s film history.

Between interviews with friends and admirers we see behind-the-scenes footage of rehearsals for Heresy. These scenes feel diversionary. There is a worthwhile interaction between Doyle and one of the singers where we see, in real-time, another musician grasp Roger’s musical ingenuity. But by and large, little of what we see here is of great interest.

Sequences showing Doyle performing in Dublin and Paris feel like music videos and are welcome as they provide an opportunity to listen to the entirety of a song, as so much of the film features samples of whole works that don’t allow a great understanding of Doyle’s style for a newcomer.

When we do see a glimpse of the finished stage version of Heresy, it comes across as a little obtuse, because again, we are seeing snatch-and-grab sections of a larger work. Pull quotes from reviews and rave reactions from attendees speak to a quality that we don’t quite get a feel for in the film itself. Still, what we are presented with is enough to be intriguing.

The Curious Works of Roger Doyle is an all-too-straightforward exploration of Doyle’s work. At times, the film feels like a radio documentary through the cadence of Jeananne Crowley’s narration, which brings us from one event to the next. Doyle, as he appears in the film, is too modest to draw us in entirely, but his friends, fans and collaborators talk him up in such a way as to keep our interest and investment up.

If the aim of this film is to spark interest in Roger Doyle and his work, it certainly succeeds, but that interest and curiosity comes more from a desire to experience more of what Lally’s documentary doesn’t present to us. Doyle, who is modest about his talents throughout, could pat himself on the back a little, no one likes to be labeled but being labeled an innovator or a visionary isn’t as bad as he might have you believe.

When we hear his music and what others say about this man, our curiosity is piqued, and while Lally’s documentary doesn’t satisfy this curiosity fully it certainly primes the viewer for a deeper dive into Doyle’s catalogue.

The Curious Works of Roger Doyle is not as exhaustive an exploration of everything Roger Doyle as the title might suggest but there’s enough intrigue here to suppose that this documentary may very well result in the creation of fan number forty-one or forty-two.

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Luke Maxwell: Luke Maxwell is the host of the film review show, Viewfinder on 103.2 Dublin City FM. He also hosts The Movie Express Podcast, which you can find at www.movieexpress.org.

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