The CBC has aired straight-ahead documentaries on Anne Murray before. What does one say about Anne Murray: Full Circle, except to mention that it is one more.
“I hope they enjoy this trip down memory lane,” Murray says in a press release about the film she has fully authorized. One of the film’s executive producers is Murray’s high-powered manager Bruce Allen. According to Derik Murray (chief executive officer of Network Entertainment, which produced the documentary), Allen provided “insightful guidance” to the project.
Oh, I bet he did.
Full Circle airs and streams on the CBC and CBC Gem on Dec. 17. It is so-named because it covers the Songbird singer’s beginnings in Springhill, N.S., to her golf-happy retirement in lovely Pugwash, N.S., 45 kilometres up Highway 321. It breaks no ground in format and delivers no bombshells in content. Those looking for an edgier presentation of the life and times of Canada’s mezzo-soprano sweetheart would be better served by reading 2009′s All of Me, a candid memoir co-written with Michael Posner.
Talking about that book back then, Murray said she’d never endure the painful tell-all process again. “You have no choice but to go through it,” she said, “but to write about it was awful.”
So, years later, Full Circle was always going to be a gentler exercise. Directed by Morgan Elliott and Adrian Buitenhuis, it covers familiar territory fluidly, using archival material and new interviews with Murray and Shania Twain, Kenny Loggins, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang, Jann Arden and others to craft a story about a performer who didn’t have it as easy as all the gold records to her name would indicate.
Early in Full Circle, Twain talks about the “enormous sacrifice” it takes for a female singer to make in a man’s world. Arden adds that Murray’s career happened in the days before social media: “Anne was out there pounding the pavement.” Raitt agrees, saying that “being on the road decade after decade is not easy to do.”
Speaking about working with a male band and guy handlers in a sexist industry, Murray expresses frustration. “Nobody listened, even though I was writing the cheques,” she says, noting the challenges involved with her post-Snowbird success. Being around dudes 24-7, she was lonely, with no one to talk to. “I hated it.” Some members of her band used drugs, which made them unreliable at times. “It made my life miserable,” Murray recalls.
Full Circle takes a 360-degree look at Murray’s career choices, family choices and romantic choices (including a four-year affair with her married manager, who would later become her husband). Murray thought her breakthrough hit in 1970 was the goal, but the career slog was just beginning and the public never saw the struggle: “Beneath this snowy mantle cold and clean ...”
We see Murray on the CBC’s Singalong Jubilee in 1968, reclining in a rocking chair wearing a floral print dress that looks like it was swiped from Goldie Hawn’s closet. Murray sings Lovin’ You by John Sebastian’s The Lovin’ Spoonful with casual charm and not a drop of perspiration.
That was the difference between laidback Murray and, say, the more intense Linda Ronstadt. Or Janis Joplin, who not only wore her heart on her sleeve, but tore it out of her chest and slapped it bleeding on the table.
With Murray’s restrained middle-of-the-road country-pop, there was a subtle detachment from her material – she never worked hard to sell the song. Which may explain why various documentarians seem compelled to show us that things were never as effortless as they seemed, even if she is often described as a “natural” with a voice that was, according to former manager Shep Gordon, “a gift from God.”
Murray’s down-to-earth appeal worked against her at times. Gordon tells the story about the singer wanting to be on the influential NBC variety show The Midnight Special in the early 1970s. It posed a challenge: The show wanted artists who were cool, which Murray absolutely was not. “How do I not change the magic,” Gordon wondered, “but make it hip?”
He did it by getting Murray photographed at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles in 1973 with Alice Cooper, Micky Dolenz, Harry Nilsson and one of the Beatles. “Two hit records didn’t make her famous,” Gordon said of Murray, “but standing next to John Lennon made her acceptable.”
The photo-op worked; Murray was booked on The Midnight Special. “Okay,” Gordon thought to himself. “My job’s done.”
If his job was complete, Murray’s career wasn’t. The rest of the film notes her professional and personal ups and downs. Full Circle serves as a worthy, contextual and artist-authorized overview of a beloved but ultimately unfascinating artist. On her debut album in 1968, Murray sang, “Hey, what about me?” With this documentary, and at least two others before it, the question has been asked and answered.
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