Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Grandma Lo-Fi

Grandma Lo-Fi is a thoroughly charming documentary about Sigríður Níelsdóttir, a lady of Danish birth living in Reykjavik who on coming into possession of an electric keyboard at the age of 70 found herself overwhelmed with musical inspiration and started writing scores of songs, which she recorded onto cassettes using her home entertainment system. This creative burst lasted a full seven years, during which time Sigríður made an astonishing 59 albums (all of which seem to contain a regulation twelve songs), which she had pressed up onto CD, complete with home-made artwork, before releasing them via local retailers. The film is made up of interviews shot by various young filmmakers over this time on the appropriately low-tech formats of super 8 and 16mm film and is enlivened by a number of stop-motion animations adapted from the surreal and sometimes very funny collages that were another expression of this relentlessly positive woman’s creativity.

The film starts with a biographical sequence outlining Sigríður’s childhood, her first love and her eventual split from the smotheringly conventional attitudes of her parents. She married an Icelandic seaman, had four daughters and spent some years in Brazil. Although never formally trained in music she picked up enough from her father to be able to pick out tunes on the piano, and it’s when she found herself living alone in a small basement flat that she discovered the joys of making up songs, often using for lyrics her own discarded verse that her daughter had carefully retrieved and collated for her.

The obvious question that arises is: is this music any good? Well, it’s certainly musical, with conventionally pretty melodies that rise and fall and resolve in the manner of modern Christian songs of praise, although I can’t comment on the quality of the lyrics given my non-existent knowledge of the Icelandic language. Inevitably, given the limited number of pre-set sounds and rhythms available on her keyboard, Sigríður’s compositions do sound a bit samey, though she does make some effort to inject variety via home-made sound effects which she cheerfully demonstrates on camera: a cream whipper standing in for a helicopter, scrunched-up tinfoil for the crackle of a fire and a tap left running into containers in a sink for a waterfall. She even incorporates the cooing and barking of her pets when she gets a chance. I’m not quite clear what her technique for multi-tracking is, but I’m guessing it’s no more sophisticated than recording a basic track on one cassette and then capturing the sound from performing sound effects over that backing track onto another.

Grandma Lo-Fi is an inspiring little film just for the positive, can-do way of thinking it shows, even if you end up suspecting that 650 homemade songs like this might be a few more than one could gainfully use. Puts my work-rate to shame, anyway.

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