This patient and luminous life-of-the-artist film freshens everything stale about its genre. The music of Irish folk singer Joe Heaney here is situated in the hard beauty of the land and village he grew up in, in the songs of birds and local balladeers, in hill and sea and timeless toil. Director Pat Collins shoots in black and white, sometimes in shadows and candlelight, fascinated not by drama but by milieu. The first third of his formally daring Song of Granite studies the soil in which Heaney flowered.
Three actors play Heaney: Colm Seoighe as a kid who finds pride and joy in tearing through the traditional verses, learning from a schoolteacher to open his mouth while singing wide enough to admit a hen's egg; Michael O'Chonfhlaola as the wayfaring adult singer who has left his homeland and family in pursuit of success Ireland can't offer; and Macdara O Fatharta as Heaney at something like peace at the end of his life, his regrets softened by his certainty that he will be leaving behind a legacy.
The highlight, of course, is its musical performances, especially an extended pub performance sequence in which O'Chonfhlaola (and other singers) give vigorous life to the likes of "The Galway Shawl." We see and hear the real Heaney in one welcome documentary sequence. But what lingers after the credits is Cooper's silvery visions of the land near Carna, Heaney's out-of-time village in County Galway: mists and heather, steep-faced hills, stony coasts. With little dialogue, you can sense the county and its culture shaping Heaney into himself, then pushing him away, then piercing his heart all the years he was gone.