Adrian Crowley appears calm and collected at the beginning of The Science of Ghosts, a new documentary about the singer-songwriter directed by Niall McCann.
Born in Malta and based in Galway, Crowley won the Choice Music Prize in 2009. He has a significant body of work, having recorded eight albums since his debut release in 1999, as well as a number of other projects.
There is, then, ample scope for a by-the-book documentary detailing Crowley’s life and times. The Science of Ghosts is not that film. As the camera starts rolling, a nearby fire alarm puts an abrupt halt to filming.
At this point, a voiceover tells us that, despite his smiling exterior, Crowley is unsure of his place in this film. “Who am I?” he asks. Then: “Who are you?” The film endeavours to answer this question by way of a stream-of-consciousness journey as Crowley daydreams his version of McCann’s film.
The Science of Ghosts is, to say the least, an unusual music documentary. This picture works with all the components of a typical documentary, but presents them in a way that makes them strange.
Rather than getting closer to knowing Crowley, we get further away from understanding him. Knowing anyone, the film suggests, is an impossibility. Nevertheless, we absorb some sort of impression from the flashes of memory we see on screen.
The daydream framing of the film allows the narrative to shift from an attempt to present a linear, biographical view of Crowley to presenting us with the process of actually making such a film.
We are viewer and researcher all at once, as Crowley presents us with bits and pieces of his life. We see home movies of his family, follow him to a concert, meet those close to him – but in fits and starts.
No aspect of Crowley’s life is brought into focus for too long. Moreover, there’s the question of whether or not many of the sequences relate to his life at all.
In many sequences, Crowley appears as though he’s along for the ride as well, he’s a passive participant unable to make sense of the ever-changing spaces and places the film takes him to. A couple of sequences show Crowley watching previous scenes in a movie theatre, one of the audience in this rendering of his life.
McCann builds on this feeling throughout the film. Later, a sequence shows a television magazine show, Country Matters. We’re also presented with a promotional music video and intermittent, but no less jarring, transitions into something that resembles a scripted feature film.
Often, the thought is whether Crowley is the master of his destiny, or whether he has as little control over the film’s direction as we do. “I could stay here in this story,” he says, in a resigned deadpan. Does he have a choice?
Questions of authorship come up again and again in The Science of Ghosts. It is as heavily authored as Crowley’s imagined film is, couched within McCann’s own vision for the documentary.
Some of Crowley’s detours, such as visiting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s holiday home in Connemara are a result of McCann’s own interest in the life and times of the Austrian philosopher. McCann also took on the role of editor for the film, and as a result we get a sense of deliberateness about the picture that cuts against its apparent looseness. The achievement here is in sustaining the illusion of freewheeling imagination.
The audience is always out of step with the movement of the film. Whenever I felt as though I had a handle on McCann’s tricks or the limits of the film’s form, there was another surprise waiting for me. There’s entertainment in these twists and turns, and a lot of wit as well.
McCann is clearly a cineliterate director. He employs the best and most engaging aspects of experimental films in a way that is challenging but also very funny and lyrical. Some cuts feel like punchlines, while others work as mini-cliffhangers.
There are even a couple of sequences that seem to cast Crowley as Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap, a hapless traveler set adrift in time and space. When strangers approach Crowley to tell him stories or question him, he always responds with a monotone that’s somehow full of curiosity. He is looking for the same answers from his film that we are.
Adrian Crowley’s music provides the soundtrack for the film, and McCann often matches the lyrics to the action. At other times this is subverted: one musical sequence shows a static shot of the interior of a building, which has the effect of a joke that goes on too long, ceases to be funny but soon becomes funny again.
This style of filmmaking is not new to Niall McCann, whose 2012 documentary Art Will Save the World took something of a similar approach to the musician Luke Haines. But The Science of Ghosts’ off-the-rails commitment to a nouvelle vague-ish style feels less mannered than that earlier picture. Things get a lot weirder too.
Toward the close of the film, there’s a sequence that takes us behind the scenes of Crowley’s imagined documentary. It’s an inspired scene, and again, shows a cleverness and inventiveness from McCann that helps to distinguish his film from the pack.
When the film does end, somewhere close to where it began, Adrian Crowley is still an enigma, a mystery man, a ghost. But the overall affect of this journey that we’ve taken with him – through the dreams and nightmares of memory, things that have been and are yet to be – feels significant and singular.
Adrian Crowley may remain an unknown quantity, but life feels like it makes a little more sense.
The Science of Ghosts is playing as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival at the Irish Film Institute on Monday 26 February at 6:30pm.