Sunday 25 August 2019

So, what's eating Gilbert O'Sullivan?

Gilbert O'Sullivan: Out on His Own (RTE1)

THERE has rarely been a documentary with a more apt title than Gilbert O'Sullivan: Out on His Own. Out is the operative word for O'Sullivan -- out of fashion and favour, mostly out of sight and mind and, above all else, out of sorts.

For a few short years in the early Seventies, the Waterford-born singer-songwriter was Ireland's first genuine pop superstar, with a string of hits. In 1972, he was the biggest-selling artist in Britain. By the middle of the decade, however, his popularity had begun to dry up.

O'Sullivan was close to his late manager/ producer Gordon Mills and his family, even writing his song Clair for Mills's daughter. But when he discovered his contract was heavily weighted in Mills's favour, he sued -- rightly and successfully -- for the copyright to his songs and his rightful share of his earnings.

The experience, however, crippled his career for years. "I sued a manager and won massively," he said here, "and the industry turned on me."

O'Sullivan no longer has a formal manager. His brother Kevin, who's his personal assistant, partly fills the role. "He can charm my enemies," O'Sullivan said. "I'm the opposite, by being blunt and honest. If I think you're fat, I'll tell you."

Aidan McCarthy's terrific Arts Live film was an absorbing portrait of a self-absorbed man who can be prickly and difficult, and can't quite understand or accept why he's no longer as popular as some of his contemporaries.

O'Sullivan clearly cares about his fans, even if many no longer care about him (a friend of mine tells of how O'Sullivan invited his 80-year-old father backstage at a gig and was the epitome of kindness), yet he seems to live in a world of his own making, oblivious to changing tastes or, indeed, changing hairstyles. O'Sullivan might be 63 now but his dark, flowing locks belong on the head of a 23-year-old.

He emerged from the documentary as a bubbling cauldron of contradictions. He's famously shy -- except in his estimation of his abilities as a songwriter -- and can be prickly and difficult, yet he allowed McCarthy unprecedented access to his life and his home on Jersey. The film also followed him as he travelled to London, Tel Aviv and Nashville for tour and publicity dates.

Despite insisting he's not bitter about the way his career has worked out -- although he does admit to getting angry at not being given due regard by the critics -- bitterness seems to be part of his make-up. "I have to work harder to make people like my work than they do," he said, the "they" in question being the likes of Leonard Cohen and Neil Diamond, with whom O'Sullivan once shared the bill at Glastonbury.

At one point he remarked that Billy Joel had been feted on his 60th birthday. "Where were they on my 60th?" he asked, then in the same breath: "It doesn't bother me."

With a documentary as frank and intimate as this, there has to be an element of compromise. In the final shot, O'Sullivan warned that if he didn't like the finished film, McCarthy would have a hell of a time getting it screened.

Clearly he did like it, although the image you were left with was of a less than likeable man.


Gilbert O'Sullivan: Out on His Own *****

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