A 180-minute account of the life and career of the folk/rock singer-songwriter Donovan may seem like overkill -- but the beauty of this film is that it ends up justifying its length, precisely by telling a lot more about its subject than most of us thought there was to know (and we were wrong). The basic format is a mix of interview segments with the subject himself (who is a good story-teller) intercut with relevant clips of varying lengths, some from period broadcasts and actual concerts, others promotional in nature, and yet others from sources that could very easily include home movies. From the earliest part of his life through to the middle of the first decade of the new century, there's ample visual support for the narrative, though there are also some funny occasional lapses (such as Donovan refers to the catch-phrase for the British television show Ready, Steady, Go as "the weekend begins here," when on the screen in front of us is the correct phrase, "The weekend starts here"). He and the director take their time moving from subject to subject, devoting a full 15 minutes to the so-called Dylan/Donovan feud, which never actually existed, also finding time to point up the irony that Donovan as a youth from Scotland, steeped in folk songs, was probably better versed in aspects of traditional folk music than Dylan was at a similar point in his life and career. The promotional clips become less relevant to the music, but more compellingly steeped in the tone and mood of the latter, as the subject matter progresses out of the folk-revival and into the psychedelic era; and all of the biographical references in the music seem to be explored at length and, themselves, prove fascinating, both as a look at Donovan's creative process and the act of composition in general. Aspiring composers could learn a great deal watching this film.
Length would seem to be an issue, what with a three-hour running time, but as it turns out, between his own accomplishments, the people with whom he's worked and crossed paths -- as just one example, Donovan is a nexus between folk music legend Derroll Adams and Led Zeppelin. And his story is a fascinating one, filled with strange coincidences and successes, and odd and memorable digressions, especially in the 1960s, that were amplified in impact and prominence by their timing. In the end, the three-hour work justifies itself and the commitment that it demands, answering numerous questions that even casual fans have had about the artist for decades (especially the reason behind his seeming disappearance from music around 1970-71). The performance clips alone are reason to watch the first two hours, and the rest isn't much less interesting musically.
One of the interesting effects of watching this documentary is to remind one of a change that's taken place in the movie business in the last 30 years. Back in 1982, when the film The Compleat Beatles first appeared, it actually ran in theaters around the country, before it ever got to pay-cable, much less broadcast television. That tier in the movie business is gone now, except for a few art-house and repertory venues (such as New York's IFC Center) in perhaps a half-dozen cities, and it's a shame, because somewhere within this 180 minute account of the life and career of Donovan there is a 79 minute edit that, in another time, might have wowed audiences in theaters -- not that the 180 minute version is bad at all; it's just 180 minutes, which demands a bigger commitment of time and energy than most people would be willing to make up front. And they'd be wrong.
Sunshine Superman: The Journey of Donovan on AllMovie
Sunshine Superman: The Journey of Donovan (2008)