Veteran East Coast filmmaker William MacGillivray has painted a dark and intriguing portrait of aging folk singer-songwriter Ron Hynes in Man of a Thousand Songs . Hynes has consistently produced some of the most charming and memorable East Coast guitar-and-voice gems over the last few decades, but his personal life has been tumultuous. Much like many gifted artists, his ego, volatility, powerful creativity, and unstoppable passion have caused him problems, not limited to the crippling cocaine addiction he battled and overcame a decade ago. After watching the film, I was torn over what exactly I wanted to think or make of it. Hynes is hardly a sympathetic figure; while he can be credited with being brutally honest, his stagey persona often takes over to bleed into hyperbolized and melodramatic confessions of a suspiciously pleading nature. His clearly unresolved issues with his parents and upbringing, as well as his constant repetition of lame and potentially offensive jokes hardly make him someone with whom I’d want to spend an afternoon hanging out. Hynes gets annoying quickly, and the film can’t seem to resolve its desire to wrench pathos and lyricism from its object with that object’s clearly unnerving nature.
But, oh! The songs! Seriously, the songs! A commentator during the film lauds Hynes’ masterful musical arrangement skills, saying something along the lines of: “the history of music is full of three chords, but how you put them together is what counts.” And this is certainly true enough in Hynes’ case. While I’m not a huge folk music aficionado, Hynes’ music continued to touch and impress me throughout the film. It is so original, so heartfelt, so complex, and so powerful that I don’t think anybody could help being converted. Hynes name-drops a number of his predecessors and contemporaries throughout the film: Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash, etc., and it is certainly not without validity that he stands in their company. Strangely, he doesn’t mention Van Morrison, with whom he has the most obvious vocal and stylistic similarity. But there is no doubt that Ron Hynes stands as a uniquely Eastern Canadian counterpart to all the Big Names in songwriting history.
The film delves into the vicissitudes of Hynes’ relationship with his (equally proud, troubled, and indecipherable) nephew, Joel Hynes, a turbulent artist in his own right. Ron and Joel seem to share a kind of stubborn love for each other which not infrequently dips into animosity, but the relationship is still a sympathetic one. Otherwise, however, the film struggles to be clear about what exactly it aims to say about Ron Hynes, other than that he is just a regular guy with regular problems who happens to write mind-blowingly amazing songs. Perhaps this is actually all the film needs to say; perhaps this is exactly who Ron Hynes is. In fact, the film may inadvertently serve as a valuable reminder to all of us that, oftentimes, the talented artists and stars we adore are not only just as “˜regular’ as we are, but are maybe even people with whom we wouldn’t want to spend much time.