Introduced and narrated by Donovan himself this is the story of a man who has lived several incredible lives. His spiritual journey will no doubt take him on many more. This two disc DVD set, Sunshine Superman, The Story Of Donovan, has been released by SPV. Directed by Hannes Rossacher, it sets a standard for such releases that will prove hard to better.
This three hour auto-biographical documentary opens with the bleak, greyness of a Scotland just after the Second World War where many children, Donovan Leitch included, contracted polio from playing on the bomb sites. It follows in great detail his journey to St. Ives, the epicentre of the British beat movement, and from there to becoming the pied piper of a generation.
Donovan Leitch is a poet. That isn’t my statement, it came from John Lennon. John of course spent several weeks with him in seclusion in India learning from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was a time that has influenced everything Donovan has done subsequently. His spirituality radiates from every frame of this inspirational film.
He takes us back through the books that provided his inspiration and made him realize that there could be a world beyond the greyness, the grime, and the gloom of post war Britain. He followed his heart and gave life to the gypsy in his Celtic blood. Always a traveller, the film takes us to just about every continent in the world. It is a story that is well told and most of all well lived.
His songs, of course, tell the story but are enriched by the words Donovan adds from his lovely house in Ireland. How he found a post war generation hungry for freedom, ready to fight a cause, ready to change the world. How he set about doing precisely that and how his journey took him alongside the great and the good of that generation.
Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Stones, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, The Doors, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and three quarters of Led Zeppelin all rubbed shoulders with Donovan. He tells with disarming honesty and modesty how seeing The Beatles changed his life. He would, of course, get to know them closely, embarking on a spiritual adventure with them.
The film is beautifully constructed and presented. This man has crammed a thousand lives into one journey and the film never loses sight of that acknowledgment. Seeing him at his spiritual home of Vesuvio’s in San Francisco, re-buying the books, that inspired a whole generation, is worth the purchase price alone. It is a theme dear to the heart of the man and one he returned to for his exceptional 2004 album Beat Café.
Eloquent, and well considered background detail provided by Donovan and his lovely wife and muse Linda just adds to the undeniable magic of the production. Rising quickly from the UK TV show Ready Steady Go, to mixing with Bob Dylan in a matter of moments, it is nothing short of a fairytale of incredible achievement.
The summer of 1965 was significant in many ways. He gained so much but lost the love of his life, Linda. Happily the couple met again, in a story that shows it was meant to be, written in the stars that she believes in. It is only one of a number of heart warming stories along the road.
The tour takes in Denmark Street in London, Japan, India, San Francisco, the desert days and nights of Joshua Tree, idyllic Greek islands, Hollywood, and the Isle Of Wight Festival of 1970. He tells us of tax problems, record deals, and nervous breakdowns. As if decided by the Gods it was the darkest moment that saw him take the decision to fly home. When he got there he met Linda again for the first time since those far off days in the mid sixties.
Donovan, like Dylan, is the genuine article. He reveals that when he first appeared on Ready Steady Go home for him was sleeping rough on a beach in Cornwall. There are fascinating tales of being shot at by Keith Moon, meditating with George Harrison, playing for Pete Seeger, his dedication to Derroll Adams, the Carnaby Street scene, and being the first music star to be raided by the London drug squad.
There is a genuine warmth to this Celtic troubadour. A feeling of knowledge gained through living the life that Jack Kerouac inspired him to do. I left the film with the certain belief that if I was blessed enough to live next door to him I could learn so much of life, love, the world, meditation, and spirituality through just being close to such a person. Not to mention his music. This is the man who wrote "Hurdy Gurdy Man" after all.
His journey is truly inspirational. Linda provides some warm, eloquent insights of the man who is clearly her soul mate. His music is featured thoughtfully and with great relevance. There is excellent use of rare footage. In amongst all of this there are near throwaway stories of George Harrison, and Paul McCartney.
He tells of how John Lennon broke the tension when meeting the Maharishi for the first time. How he taught John the Donovan style of guitar picking. Meeting Janis Joplin, talking with Jimi Hendrix, and meditating with Rick Rubin. There is film of him playing music for deaf children in India. More recently film of him playing music for school children near his home in Ireland.
A stand out moment has him returning to St. Ives beach. With both the 1965 and the 2008 Donovan shown side by side it illustrates the timeless power of the visual image and, of course, his music.
It is a truly wonderful account of an exceptional life. This is a man who wasn’t merely next to the great and the good, he was part of them, and admired by them. The prince of flower power, a pied piper, a poet, a musical gypsy, but most of all the genuine article.
This film is a priceless addition to any of his admirers. They simply cannot be without it. It is a valuable sociological piece for anyone with interest in the world of the sixties. It is also a gem for any music lover.
The film takes us on, to today. Despite his fame never quite reaching the heights that it did in the sixties, his onward career included some of his most impressive work such as Cosmic Wheels, in the early seventies and Sutras twenty plus years later. In the end he emerges a wiser and altogether more fascinating man.
This is without doubt right up there with the very best, most informative, and honest, self study I have ever seen, in music, or otherwise. It clocks in at over three hours and that isn't including the huge wealth of material on the two hour extra disc.
If only he lived next door.