Canadian actor Jay Baruchel gets in touch with the Irish side of his ancestry alongside sports journalist Eoin O’Callaghan in Michael McNamara’s amiable, good natured documentary Celtic Soul. It’s not too much more than a travelogue film, and it probably works better on television than in a theatre, but Celtic Soul has an infectious love and respect for the topic at hand that makes it consistently winsome and engaging.
On the surface, it looks as if Celtic Soul would be a straight up documentary about sports fans, and one could probably be forgiven for thinking so. Baruchel and O’Callaghan bonded while the latter was in Canada hosting a soccer round-up on Fox Sports, sharing a common affinity for Glasgow’s Celtic Football Club. While not technically Irish in terms of geographic location, the team comes richly steeped in Irish history and tradition, one that has enamoured Baruchel for quite some time. The actor takes O’Callaghan up on the journalist’s offer to take him around Ireland and Scotland to gain a better understanding of Baruchel’s familial roots and the importance of Celtic to their community.
McNamara gets things off to a bit of a rocky start. Initially, events feel sometimes staged and a bit too convenient, almost as if the film is labouring to explain everything and manufacture unnecessary drama, like going out of the way to explain that O’Callaghan is going on this road trip right around his tenth wedding anniversary. It’s also initially disarming that with all the emphasis placed on the sporting angle and how Baruchel’s fervent support for his beloved Montreal Canadiens ties into his love for the Celtic that the film chooses instead to take more of a travel based approach.
Any initial misgivings about McNamara’s work, however, go out the window once the actual road trip starts. Gorgeously capturing the Irish and Scottish landscapes, our hosts, tour guides, and surrogates learn about the origins of hurling (a traditional, still wildly popular sport that plays like a cross between lacrosse and baseball), visit where some of Baruchel’s oldest relations might have lived, look at the history behind pirate queen Grace O’Malley, and take a poignant moment to acknowledge the nondenominational link between their beloved footie club and the Catholic church.
For quite a long time, McNamara ditches the conceit that this is a sports film altogether, and the results are a lot more impactful, but also truncated. It feels like Baruchel and O’Callaghan did a lot on their road trip, and the final feature barely scratches the surface of their insightful adventures. It never feels as slight as watching someone’s vacation footage, and Baruchel and O’Callaghan are too professional, likeable, and gregarious to make each segment of their trip less than enjoyable. It’s just a shame that this probably would have worked better and had more of a lasting impact as a television miniseries than an 82 minute documentary. Each stop along the way feels worthy of its own episode of a show, and sometimes the topics at hand feel like they’re being unnecessarily shortchanged due to running time constraints.
But the biggest draw of Celtic Soul remains Baruchel whose humble, nerdy, and constantly fascinated tourist provides the documentary with an infectious spirit of wonder and awe. It’s more than merely a “polite Canadian” stereotype. This journey clearly means a lot to him, and whenever someone does something genuinely nice for him or gifts him with something, he’s genuinely taken aback by it with graciousness and thanks. He deeply respects everyone he comes across here, and that’s exactly the kind of guy you would want to be on a road trip with in the first place.