SPV USA // 2008 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // October 22nd, 2008
"'Twas then when the hurdy gurdy man
Came singing songs of love"
-- "Hurdy Gurdy Man"
At first glance, a three-hour documentary on the life of '60s hippie folkie Donovan might not necessarily sound like the most enticing proposition available. Indeed, for many years, even despite his enormous success, many critics have dismissed or actively reviled Donovan, labeling him either a lightweight Bob Dylan ripoff or an insufferably twee acid casualty. In retrospect, this has turned out to be an unfair judgment. True, some of Donovan's hippie pretensions have dated badly enough as to seem juvenile; it's no accident that "Mellow Yellow" is more famous these days as an advertising jingle than as a song in its own right. Still, the best of Donovan's work remains worthy of respect. Even today, it's hard to deny the beauty of "Cosmic Wheels" or "Colors," or the sinister allure of "Season of the Witch" or "Hurdy-Gurdy Man." What Sunshine Superman does is put this music in its proper context, both within Donovan's life and career and within the era that it was written. In doing so, it strips away many of the stereotypes and preconceived notions surrounding Donovan that many have. Consequently, while Donovan fans will likely get the most pleasure out of this DVD, viewers who are only mildly familiar with his music will be surprised at just how convincing a job Sunshine Superman does of arguing that it deserves a reappraisal.
Much of the reason for Sunshine Superman's success comes from Donovan himself. Though the film does indeed clock in at nearly three hours, Donovan is such a skilled raconteur and articulate analyst that the time mostly passes by quickly. He is full of fascinating memories of the London scene of the 1960s, of his working-class childhood in Scotland, and of the folk movement he began in. He also dissects both his career and the music and culture of the '60s astutely, without any self-aggrandizing or glossing over the low points. What makes this all the more impressive is that for all three hours, we're practically hearing only Donovan himself, accompanied by archival footage, interviews, and performances. The only other people interviewed, briefly, are Linda Lawrence, who is Donovan's wife, and John Cameron, who arranged some of Donovan's mid-'60s hits. While they both give some added detail to some of the stories he tells, they are both onscreen for only a couple of minutes, meaning Donovan himself carries the weight of the documentary. His insights into the folk scene, his memories of his days spent with the Beatles and Dylan, and his discussion of the writing and recording of some of his most noteworthy songs are all immensely fascinating. He describes, for instance, how during the sessions for "Hurdy Gurdy Man" he was backed by three immensely talented musicians playing together for the first time: guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. Those three, of course, would go on to form Led Zeppelin with singer Robert Plant only a couple of years later, and their instant musical connection gave the song its dark, foreboding feel. His account of his later years, when his record sales declined and he struggled to find a new direction for his music, including embarking on an ill-fated collaboration with superstar producer Rick Rubin, is also well-told. As a portrait of an artist who has always been more popular than respected, Sunshine Superman does an impressive job of both appealing to his fans and making a case to his detractors.
As good as Sunshine Superman is, it's not entirely without flaws. Though it's full of compelling stories, three hours is still longer than it has to be. In particular, there's a section in the middle where Donovan recalls his time in India with the Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru who was revealed as a charlatan and who inspired John Lennon's song "Sexy Sadie." This section is about twice as long as it needs to be, as this story is not nearly as gripping as most of the others, even with the presence of the Beatles. Also, the last 15 or so minutes tend to drag. Once Donovan explains that he has found some measure of contentment and tranquility in his recent years, the rest is just padding. Some judicious editing would have made Sunshine Superman even better than it already is by arguing for Donovan's music more concisely. Moreover, this shortchanges some stories that would have been worth hearing. The writing and recording of "Season of the Witch," for instance, is completely glossed over.
If the three-hour feature isn't enough, viewers will be staggered with the second disc, which lasts nearly as long and is packed to the gills with extras. "Extended Versions" compiles outtakes and additional interviews and performances from the feature. None are essential, but they do add to the overall color. There are also a handful of TV appearances, a couple from the 1960s and one from 1996. The music videos are a mixture of original filmed clips (such as "Cosmic Wheels") and others that were made recently, using archival footage edited together. There are four unreleased songs of varying quality that Donovan performs solo on acoustic guitar. Most of the concerts are fine performances taken from recent concerts. Finally, "The Private Donovan" compiles various odds and ends related to Donovan outside of his musical career. There's a featurette of Donovan explaining his collection of memorabilia from his life, footage of some academic awards he's received, recordings of Donovan's father reading aloud some of his favorite poems, some family snapshots, and even a look at a transcendental meditation academy Donovan opened with filmmaker David Lynch (Blue Velvet), who appears after the credits in the feature singing Donovan's praises. Most of these extras will appeal most to diehard fans, but the sheer volume means that even newcomers will find some nuggets here and there worth looking at. The video and audio quality varies, depending on the age and quality of the footage, but generally, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer and Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is pretty solid.
Ultimately, Sunshine Superman is more than just a hagiography. It argues forcefully that Donovan's music deserves more respect than it has frequently gotten, but does so with enough of Donovan's humor and modesty that it won't alienate viewers who might not be so familiar with it. For diehard Donovan fans, this package is so generous and well-produced that it will be just about the only Donovan DVD they'll ever need. Sunshine Superman is most assuredly not guilty, and is worth watching for anyone interested in an engaging music biography.
Review content copyright © 2008 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: SPV USA
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Versions
* TV Appearances
* Music Videos
* Unreleased Songs
* The Private Donovan