The story of Donovan's life is a fascinating journey through a period in pop music that continues to shape the creative lives of several generations. A new video biography by Hannes Rossacher makes a good case for Donovan as a kind of nexus for many of the musical and musico-social strains that began to mingle in the 1950s and touched off the most resonant and lasting explosion of popular music in our history – that of "the 60s."
Sunshine Superman: The Journey of Donovan is an unusual biopic in that the subject himself narrates the whole way, onscreen in a series of interviews in which the interviewer is unseen and unheard. As he takes us through his life from his childhood in postwar Glasgow through the present day, it becomes clear that Donovan has a healthy opinion of himself, his work, and his influence. But whatever his true or deserved place in the pantheon of rock godhood, this film demonstrates that he was certainly centrally located.
Along with the well-known facts and high points of Donovan's career – his hit singles, his bizarre encounter with Bob Dylan in the film Don't Look Back, his collaboration with the Beatles and famous trip to India with them to visit the Maharishi, and so on – there are also amusing tales, like getting squirted with a water gun by Keith Moon and Roger Daltry while trying to perform on a TV show. There are also numerous interesting clips of promotional videos, films in which Donovan appeared, and TV appearances ranging from Pete Seeger's show in 1966 to Later…with Jools Holland three decades later. There are concert and festival clips, culminating with a 2008 all-star jam on "Season of the Witch" at New York's Cutting Room, interviews with his wife and others, a brief account of his attempt to avoid taxes by "never living anywhere," a visit to his luthier in California, and more.
And the wardrobe… just seeing the extravagant hippie-wear Donovan used to don for his concerts and videos is nearly worth the price of admission.
Disc 1 is the three-hour documentary itself. The latter part is decidedly less interesting than the earlier sections, but it's hard to imagine how this could have been avoided, considering when the high points of Donovan's career occurred. (Halfway through the film, it's still 1968.) It's in those earlier sections that Rossacher, aided mightily by Donovan himself, makes the case for the artist's central significance. As he worked on his early hits – produced with legendary producer Micky Most – Donovan collaborated with many legends and legends-to-be. Backing him up on the famous recording of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" are Jimmie Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones, soon to become three quarters of Led Zeppelin. Elsewhere we see him befriending Brian Jones. There's Donovan in India, teaching the Beatles finger-style guitar. Here he is recording his later hit "Barabajagal" with Jeff Beck's band backing him up.
A brief montage of famous films that have prominently featured Donovan's songs attests to his continuing significance for creators and audiences today. (The most recent major example is the use of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" in the film Zodiac.) More obscure are the clips found on Disc 2, which, like the film, will be of interest to Donovan fans, completists, and students of the 60s.
Sound and video quality are excellent, even on the old clips. Latter-day Donovan remains hale and hearty. His stage style is winning, but, lifted out of the feel-good flower-power milieu that spawned his biggest hits, a little short of mesmerizing, so don't expect to be blown away by awesome live performances. But Disc 2 is packed with extras – not just videos and concert clips and TV appearances, but extended versions of some of the film's sequences, private moments, a family photo album, and, most valuable, several really nice unreleased songs in video form.
You get a lot of bang for your buck with this two-disc set. It provides a close look at Donovan's life, music, and, maybe even more interesting, his times. I recommend it highly not just for Donovan fans but for all fans of 60s music and anyone interested in the period.