Monday, 3 November 2014

Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell

Filmhouse, Edinburgh - 03rd November 2014

The Possibilities Are Endless

I've been a fan of Edwyn Collins since the days of Orange Juice and Postcard Records.  I have seen him live about 7 times over the years, and followed his career with interest. So I jumped at the opportunity to attend this rather special film premiere.  

On February 20, 2005, Edwyn Collins collapsed at home while suffering from a major brain haemorrhage. To put it very bluntly, that could all too easily have been the end of him. It would have drawn the curtain on the fascinating, distinctive career of a singer and songwriter, initially part of Scottish pop-soul originals Orange Juice, and then as a well respected solo artist.

But it didn’t. Collins was rushed to hospital and suffered a second haemorrhage. He was kept in intensive care for weeks, his life hanging in the balance. But despite the strokes and contracting a hospital acquired MRSA infection, he survived. Afterwards, the effects were devastating: he couldn’t move without assistance, couldn’t read, write or even speak without great difficulty. His memory of his own career and songs was virtually non-existent. But he did have the unfailing love and support of his wife and manager, Grace Maxwell. Within two years, he was speaking, reading, writing, recording and playing live again. That’s not to say the haemorrhage hasn’t left its mark. But he did it. And The Possibilities are Endless is the story of how he did it.

When he did come round some time later, he was able to say only four things: “yes”, “no”, “Grace Maxwell” (his wife’s name) and “the possibilities are endless”. 

“It sounds profound,” said Grace in the post-film Q&A chat "but when you've heard it 85 times in a day, it seems slightly less so.” Big smiles from Edwyn and Grace at this point.

This was the pre-release premiere of James Hall and Edward Lovelace's remarkable film documenting Edwyn's recovery through video footage, stark symbology and the narration by Edwyn and Grace. The viewing of the film was followed by a question and answer session with Grace, Edwyn and Ed Lovelace and then an acoustic session with Edwyn and David Page. 

Ed Lovelace, Grace and Edwyn answer audience questions
Essentially, the film is in three sections, mirroring the three stages that Collins went through. The first third is almost entirely abstract and expressionistic. The film begins with long sweeping shots of isolated landscapes, and then cuts to a clip of Edwyn and his band (Paul Cook on drums, Clare Kenny on bass, Steve Skinner on guitar) performing A Girl Like You, followed by a short interview in which Edwyn is at his most entertaining, on the Conan O'Brien show in 1995.

Sudden cut to complete blackness,  which lasted 10 seconds or so, signifying the brain hemorrhages.  What follows is a steady stream of images of landscapes and nature – particularly of water – plus a few unknown, nonspeaking figures popping up. Over this, there’s evocative incidental music composed by Collins especially for the film, and audio of Collins and Maxwell talking about the terrifying experience of his haemorrhage. But they’re not really describing it as such. They’re talking about how it felt. At no point are the exact details of Collins’s ordeal spelled out. It’s almost like some experimental, illustrated radio play. Viewers could feel unsettled and lost, but it’s nothing to what Collins himself must have gone through. It’s a strange, and very captivating portrayal of a frankly unimaginable ordeal.

Next we’re on to his release from hospital and slow struggle with his condition. Here, things get a bit more tricksy and inventive. Collins and Maxwell are seen back at home, quietly trying to piece their lives, and Collins’s health, back together. But evidently they’re re-enacting these trying moments from a few years ago, which strikes an odd chord. It can be powerful stuff, though, particularly when we see Collins watching clips of his younger pop star self without a flicker of recognition on his face, only bewilderment.

There’s also some filling in of the couple’s back story, with their teenage son, William, appearing in footage as a younger Collins, and Yasmin Paige (of Submarine fame) as young Maxwell. There’s no dialogue though, just a few evocative moving scenes touching on their courtship. Obviously it is a difficult part of the story to convey successfully, but in among so much that’s homespun and organic and genuine, this slightly gauche fabrication does jar a tad. It’s probably the only slight stumble in the whole film.

The final section is on surer ground. The presentation opens up, with Collins and Maxwell shown in snatched, unstaged moments, as he gingerly resumes his recording and performing career. He’s back in action, in his element, surrounded by banks of guitars, studio equipment, adoring audiences – and Maxwell. Wrapped in a duffle-coat, walking with a cane, he becomes a genuinely, unexpectedly heroic figure.

In his youth, Collins was so witty and eloquent that it’s heart-wrenching to see him defeated by language. The phrase deployed as the film’s title was, in fact, one of the very few things, other than Maxwell’s name, that he could say in the immediate aftermath of his hospitalisation. But in time he overcomes this, and towards the end he’s laughing and teasing young William, and mock-bickering with Maxwell (she takes his ‘Sharon Osbourne’ jibe surprisingly well).

Plus, his current, hesitant, round-about mode of expression often hits the nail squarely on the head. For instance, he compares, with awesome honesty, his old and new selves: “Possibly, before my stroke, I was a bit too focused. No, no – I was nice, don’t get me wrong. But I was arrogant, in a way. I’m over that phase.” Or, on the changing nature of love: “Back then, love was lust. Loving is sometimes complex. Nowadays, love is real.” Would that we all had such devastating insight. On a lighter note, Collins’s deep, irrepressible chuckle, which is heard more and more as the film goes on,  is absolutely uplifting, too. His ability to sing much more fluently than speak, was according to Edwyn, a very welcome surprise. 

Grace and Edwyn share a joke en-route to Helmsdale
Really, it’s a highly unconventional love story, about Collins being nurtured and saved by Maxwell – but it’s very far from lovey-dovey and sickly sweet, thank heavens. It’s never over-egged, but the dialogue between them, whether it’s spoken or not, is what drives the whole thing. Maxwell, incidentally, has already told her side of this story in her 2009 book Falling and Laughing, which surely helped to inspire the film, but which takes a much more conventional route.

The post film acoustic session was a beautiful finish to the evening. And if, after all he’s been through, you can get through the performance of his song "Home Again" without a tear, frankly you're made of sterner stuff then me.

Had the opportunity to chat to Grace and Edwyn after the event, where Edwyn signed my brand new copy of the Possibilities OST album, slowly and meticulous adding his moniker to the sleeve. I suggested that as the new studio in Helmsdale took shape there would be less and less need for them both to travel to and from London. Would this be an end to Edwyn's travel twitter musings I wondered? Grace laughed and said "Not likely, that will continue I am sure, but I have to admit that Edwyn's constant need for wi-fi password assistance in hotels and on trains will be a blessing." Edwyn gives her a lopsided grin. "It's the first thing he does when he wakes up" said Grace "what's the password? "

The good humoured banter between them sealed for me, a lovely and quite emotional evening. 

 I do think that the film posters should really say "Starring Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell" though.


  1. Great write-up. I had somehow failed to realise this film was out there. It is now a must-see. I recall from Grace's book just how often she had to intervene in Edwyn's care during the early days in hospital - ensuring he was given his medication on time etc. Was that brought out in the film?

    1. Hi Ian - no that wasn't made very obvious in the film, but Grace did mention some of this in the post-film Q&A session. One other thing that was interesting was Edwyn's remark about being a Solpadeine junky because of severe headaches in the 6 months leading up to the stroke. Seems that there were warning signs but no-one made the connection at the time