'Where the Universe Sings'
When his paintings started selling for record highs a few years ago, artist Lawren Harris experienced an unexpected career renaissance decades after his death. In celebration, co-directors Peter Raymont (‘Shake Hands with the Devil’) and Nancy Lang dive into what makes Harris’ work so special and enduring.
‘Where the Universe Sings’ is a very sweet documentary that serves as a strong primer for the painter and his work with the Group of Seven, but it’s also very much a puff-piece with little in the way of anything beyond glowing praise. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just leads to a fairly predictable profile made for folks unfamiliar with the subject matter.
Unsurprisingly, ‘Where the Universe Sings’ takes on a conventional documentary form, presenting talking-head interviews with fans, experts and relatives with a mixture of archival photos and re-enactments. Things kick off with Steve Martin chuckling about how he thought he’d discovered Lawren Harris, before realizing the artist’s massive success and influence. From there, the movie dives into Harris’ background bio in fairly dry fashion. We learn of his privileged upbringing and the ways in which he clashed with the commercial ideals of the popular artists at the beginning of his career. It’s only when Harris’ career takes off that the film does as well.
A variety of readings of famous quotes and passages written by Harris slowly reveal his skill with a soundbyte and his deeply thoughtful nature. His brother’s death in World War I rocked him out of Christianity and into more mystical leanings, which opened his eyes and made him fascinated with creating national art for the Canadian people. That led to the formation of the Group of Seven. Once he was established, Harris’ work grew more abstract. His landscapes became more personal and found meaning in the ways the artist expanded upon the natural images that he found into the emotions and concepts he wanted to express. At the time, Harris was often met with hostility for this approach, especially as he slowly transitioned into pure abstraction. Now, that controversial technique makes his work far more unique, challenging, meaningful, and of course profitable.
It’s an intriguing story that led to some remarkable work which remains potent and powerful to this day. Given that Lawren Harris remains an underrated figure outside of art circles, ‘Where the Universe Sings’ serves a purpose. It works well as an educational doc and is crafted with enough care to never feel like work to consume. The analysis from experts and memories from relatives are rich and fulfilling, providing a warm image of the man and a powerful exploration of the artist.
Sadly, the movie ignores much of the political activism that was so important to Harris (even if it rarely made it into his most famous work) and barely touches on his personal flaws or foibles. That could have added welcome depth and color to what is ultimately a documentary work of hero worship and definitely downgrades the movie slightly. Thankfully, the film works so well at its prescribed purpose and is executed with such craft and care that it’s easy to ignore these complaints. It’s a pleasant documentary about a worthy subject. Sometimes that’s more than enough.