March 18, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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When you first come across the opening scenes of A Skin Too Few, it will not register in your mind that what you are about to see is a documentary. More art film than exposition, Jeroen Berkvens’ biographic documentary about late folk singer Nick Drake is a unique visual and auditory experience.

Extending for only 48 minutes, A Skin Too Few maximizes its short run time to formulate a complete and lasting impression of its main character. Found dead in 1974 from a drug overdose, Drake was only 26 years old and had already recorded three albums worth of songs. Because of his early death and shyness when it came to performing in front of others, physical evidence of Drake’s life exists only through a few photographs and the actual recordings of his songs.

Not to be deterred by minimal source material, however, Berkvens fashions a complete picture from the material he does have access to, pairing various photographs of Drake with excerpts from his songs. Berkvens also utilizes the memories of Drake’s family and friends, interviewing everyone that Drake interacted with, especially relying on Drake’s sister, Gabrielle. To see Gabrielle speak of her brother truly humanizes Berkvens’ story, her face an expressive canvas that, through nuances, bares all her emotions.

Berkvens introduces audiences to Drake by dividing his subject’s life into several time periods, compiling them into a linear tour. From Drake’s early childhood in Burma, to his college years in Cambridge, and his eventual adult life in London, the biographical aspect of the film is always paired with compelling visuals and haunting melodies provided by Drake, himself. What results is a completely constructed universe, as Berkvens communicates to the audience Drake’s essence and internal perception of the world through his music.

The movie’s focus on Drake’s life continuously decreases in its visual scope. This method of direction fosters the evolution of the audience’s relationship with Drake, from initial introduction to eventual familiarity. For example, Berkvens moves from slow, yet detached visual sequences that pan across sweeping landscapes of where Drake used to live to intimate, focused shots of Drake’s room in his parents’ house, the location where his body was found.

Berkvens is patient in his direction, never rushing his material, which causes the film to flow with smooth fluidity. The movie, itself, becomes a sort of song, lyrical in its presentation of undisturbed scenery accompanied by Drake’s music. Dialogue is restricted to key interviews because Berkvens attempts to express a feeling rather than knowledge in his documentary. The details and facts of Drake’s life are not what classify as most important. It is, instead, the man, himself, previously an unexplored enigma, that becomes the focal point of Berkvens’ film.

There are two artistic aspects that continuously appear throughout the film and form the strong foundation beneath A Skin Too Few. The first of the two, visuals, are manifested through unforgettable scenes that echo the atmosphere of solitude that Drake’s life progressively exuded. An empty London street, a green field being rustled by the wind, and the view outside from behind Drake’s bedroom window are all the types of shots that Berkvens uses to convey Drake’s temperament without the crutch of words.

The second aspect, music, is isolated to Drake’s own compositions and gives audiences a glimpse into the private side of Drake’s personality. Berkvens’ familiarity with Drake is reflected in the intimate and meaningful rendition of Drake’s life that this movie provides. What emerges is an ode to a unique musician who left this world too soon.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang