For over a decade now Damien Dempsey has sold out a series of Christmas concerts at Vicar Street. The new documentary Love Yourself Today chronicles one of these concerts from 2019, highlighting the importance of Dempsey’s music to the lives of the devoted fans who attend year after year.
We hear Dempsey before we see Dempsey. His voice booms from darkness: “In this legendary room full of soul and sweet empathy, get ready for the singsong of the century.”
Cheers erupt as the camera glides over an eager crowd. Cuts to close-up show fans enraptured, their expressions ranging from joy to extreme joy. Men and women fight back tears, and some weep openly to the opening notes of the show. The spectacle of a live show is a little eerie these days, like unearthed footage from the distant past, or, beamed-in visions of a possible future.
On this December night in 2019, Vicar Street is packed out, but to look at the crowd you’d think that Dempsey was performing a private show for each of them.
As the camera cross-fades and cuts from one reaction shot to another, some faces stand out more than others. We hold on a woman swaying from side to side who struggles to hold back tears as she dances. Soon we settle on another guy at the back of the room, seemingly older than the average attendee, with a long Santa Claus beard. He nods along to the song, his eyes closed, contentment written on his weathered face.
The faces that the camera picks out of the crowd are not an editing flourish or a canny use of B-roll footage to pad out the film. Director Ross Killeen cleverly splits the running time of Love Yourself Today between concert and cinema verité. Soon we put names to faces, learn about their lives, and hear why Dempsey’s music speaks to them so potently.
The three fans featured in Love Yourself Today are Nadia, Packy and Jonathan. All of them have lived the kind of lives that inspire Dempsey’s lyrics. Killeen doesn’t take an active role in the film. Instead, he, like the audience, observes as the three fans go about their daily lives.
All three speak frankly about their experiences, their failings, and the people that failed them. Nadia is in recovery from addiction, having turned to drugs to cope with the death of her brother. Packy, a boxing coach, speaks about witnessing the murder of his best friend. Jonathan, the bearded man in the crowd shots, talks about the physical abuse that saw him develop a drinking problem before he was a teenager.
Much of their experience mirrors Dempsey’s own. There are parallels between all of their lives.
Sitting in front of a piano Dempsey recalls something he says Christy Moore told him: “Don’t ever think the music comes from you. It comes through you.” Dempsey’s lyrics aren’t necessarily a reflection of himself then, they’re more an expression of a particular outlook. Eternal hope that the sun will continue to rise and chase any darkness away.
Director of photography Narayan Van Maele shoots all scenes in a very high-contrast black and white. Squid-ink black and blinding pearly white fight it out in every frame. The deep tones of the photography work especially well in the day-to-day documentary segments where we observe Nadia, Jonathan and Packy out and about in the world.
We are nearly always looking at them through door frames, hallways or windows. The photography gives these everyday locations a sinister quality. These frames within the frame create a vignetting effect.
The despair of the past is still present. Nadia is reminded of it saying her affirmation at recovery meetings. When Packy walks to the gym where he works he passes by places haunted by violence. Jonathan, working as a Santa at Christmastime, shows the kind of kindness that was denied to him as a child.
At the concert, the contrast is inverted. The space around Dempsey and his band is pitch black. He stands a beacon of light and love in the darkness and the crowd in turn is lit up by his presence and the power of his music.
The starkness of the technique plays well with the binary nature of Dempsey’s lyrics. Good and bad, happy and sad, love and hate. The biggest things in the world made simple, singable and tangible to everyone.
That fantasy of a singer picking an audience member out of the crowd, and singing to them alone in one profound moment of recognition is reality for all of those in attendance. The power of Dempsey’s music is in creating this feeling for everybody.
The film closes on the extended outro from Dempsey’s “Love Yourself Today”, as he throws the song out to the crowd and brings it back in again several times. The camera swivels to and fro, mirroring the movement of the microphone. The sensation is that we’re there too, singing along, goosebumps on arms, tingling hairs on the back of necks, hope, redemption, the power to go on, that “sweet empathy” and affirmation.
Love Yourself Today is in cinemas from 5 November.