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Documentary Film Review: ‘A Fanatic Heart: Bob Geldof on W.B. Yeats’

“Out of Ireland have we come./Great hatred, little room,/Maimed us at the start./I carry from my mother’s womb/A fanatic heart.” William Butler Yeats wrote these lines in 1931, lamenting the way blind dedication to causes, and simple hatred, trump our good natures and best intentions.

It’s the perfect epigram for the activist heart of musician Bob Geldof, whose new documentary A Fanatic Heart: Bob Geldof on W.B. Yeats is a biographical-intellectual study of the poet with a focus on Yeats’ importance to both the founding and the ongoing cultural identity of the modern Irish nation and state. In the film Geldof reveals himself as a restless intellectual, full of passionate intensity for both his maddeningly creative and fractious country and for the impossibly great poet he so admires.

To bolster his case for Yeats’ centrality, Geldof gathers commentary from leading lights of Irish culture, including scholars and writers such as Colm Tóibín, Edna O’Brien, novelist Joseph O’Connor, and Yeats biographer R.F. Foster; actors including Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, and Colin Farrell; and a number of Geldof’s fellow musicians and songwriters, most of them Irish, including Shane McGowan, Bono, Noel Gallagher, Van Morrison, and former English teacher Sting. They and many others contribute thoughts and read Yeats poems, with dozens of the readings collected as DVD extras and a sizable sample also present on an included CD.

The mere presence of this impressive virtual conclave testifies to Yeats’ widespread and lasting influence. But what makes the documentary compelling is Geldof’s own engagement and sympathy with the poet’s deep immersion in Ireland’s artistic and political zeitgeist – with the “revolutionary intellectual fervor,” as Geldof puts it, of Yeats’ milieu.

Yeats memorial statue in Sligo
Yeats statue, Sligo (Critical Lens Media)

Yeats was born in 1865, just a decade and a half after the great famine that saw hundreds of thousands starve to death and hundreds of thousands more flee the west of Ireland for more fertile pastures. As he matured artistically Yeats took on the task of fostering a new English-language Irish literature and, in a broader sense, a new and more unified cultural identity.

While becoming the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century, he also co-founded the Abbey Theatre (Ireland’s de facto national theatre); served as a Senator when the Irish state finally came into being, years after the UK had promised independence; worked doggedly to preserve centuries of Celtic folklore in danger of extinction as the Irish language went further underground; and evolved into his country’s preeminent public man of letters, receiving the Nobel Prize in 1923, before finally laying down his pen on the eve of World War II.

Geldof avidly puts all this in context. He travels to the places where Yeats grew up, lived, and worked: Dublin, Sligo, London, Galway, and more. Some particularly emblematic sites he calls out only visually, not feeling the need to name them, as their mere imagery conveys their meaning. Lissadell House stands for both the patrician stratum Yeats inhabited and the revolutionary spirit embodied by its owner, the poet’s friend Countess Markievicz. Glencar Falls splashes near the site where Yeats viewed and later imagined the now-famous “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a vista Geldof also visits. Ben Bulben hulks above the countryside like a slumbering beast waiting to be born. The camera mutely shows the wild swans in the waters off Coole Park. And so on.

It’s energizing, and just plain fun, to witness Geldof’s passion, as when he queries the local men who row him to see a flooded Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ medieval tower, about their belief in the supernatural beings the poet so keenly envisioned, or when he argues with Foster and others about the foolishness of the Easter Rising (“The boys of 1916 weren’t the inventors of modern Ireland; this guy [Yeats] was”).

Enlightening and informative, Geldof is never pedantic, saving extended versions of many of the documentary’s discussions for the Extras DVD. The best teachers light fires in their students by conveying their own love for the subject matter. Geldof does just that for viewers, with lots of help.

Highlights among the 70 readings include Lisa Dwan’s naturalistically theatrical rendition of “Adam’s Curse,” Damian Lewis’s sparkling take on “Lapis Lazuli,” and Dominic West’s solemn reading of (and laughing commentary on) “When You Are Old.” “Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled/And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.” The readers’ styles range from Van Morrison’s affectless mumble to Trudie Styler’s sometimes overdone histrionics. But the poems’ beauty and pathos always shine through.

On the CD, along with a selection of the readings you’ll find 30 minutes of Pete Briquette’s atmospheric, synth-heavy soundtrack, which works nicely in the film but seems extraneous here, and musical settings of Yeats poems by a brooding Bono (“September 1913,” “Mad as the Mist and Snow”) and a rambunctious Elvis Costello (“A Drunken Man’s Praise of Sobriety”).

Yeats continues to inspire musicians and thespians as well as writers; in the past few years here at Blogcritics we’ve covered, for example, The Waterboys’ wonderful album An Appointment with Mr. Yeats and the Irish Repertory Theatre’s tribute to Yeats on the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. In Bob Geldof, the “smiling public man” of Irish letters finds yet another champion. Yeats’ words have never stopped ringing, but his life was just as fascinating.

A Fanatic Heart: Bob Geldof on W.B. Yeats is available now.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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