To most North Americans, Edwyn Collins is little more than a 1990s one-hit wonder, a dashing Elvis-like figure in the video for a Top 40 single culled from the Empire Records soundtrack—and recently revived by the Black Keys—that brought him a brief moment of fame on these shores. In fact, Collins’s long career dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he and his bandmates in Scottish indie upstarts Orange Juice released a series of critically beloved singles and LPs that attempted (often wildly successfully) to fuse wry, literate British songwriting and jittery, funky disco rhythms—imagine CHIC’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards raised on a steady diet of Kinks records—and that remain a towering influence on British indie pop groups from Belle and Sebastian to Franz Ferdinand. Following the demise of Orange Juice, Collins embarked on a solo adventure marked by several excellent singles of idiosyncratic indie pop (and a great collaboration with Bernard Butler) that rarely—the Northern soul tribute “A Girl Like You” being the lone exception—found the wider audience they richly deserved.
When the news broke in early 2005 that Collins had suffered two major cerebral hemorrhages in less than a week, had lost the ability to walk, talk or play the guitar and would need a long period of rehabilitation, even his most loyal fans would have been forgiven for assuming that they would have to settle from now on for a trickle of archival releases, perhaps the occasional compilation of demos and b-sides. That the last seven years have seen Collins not only release Home Again the album he was recording at the time of his strokes, but also complete two excellent new LPs—both 2010’s Losing Sleep and 2013’s Understated are well worth anyone’s time and money—is nothing short of miraculous.
The Possibilities Are Endless, a new documentary named after one of the few sentences Collins said during his hospital stay following the two strokes (the others were “yes”, “no”, and “Grace Maxwell”—the name of his wife and manager) and directed by James Hall and Edward Lovelace (Werewolves Across America, Katy Perry: Part of Me), chronicles over several years Collins’s difficult recovery and return to music. Instead of giving us a conventionnal music film featuring talking heads and performances, Hall and Lovelace mostly eschews both to create a more impressionistic, disorienting and ultimately more powerful document that seems to seek—particularly in its first half—to place the audience inside the head of Collins as he deals struggles to express his thoughts, his choppy, halting diction contrasting with onscreen images of the singer in his youth, a wiry, magnetic bolt of energy and charisma. As the film progresses, we see Collins slowly regain some of his motor skills, his sense of humour (he quips, “Sharon Osbourne!” when Maxwell gives him some advice in the studio) and creative spark with the help of his wife—a particularly touching scene features Collins singing “Searching for the Truth”, from Losing Sleep, at a live session, with Maxwell strumming the guitar strings as his hands forms the chords on the neck.
There is refreshingly little sentimentality in The Possibilities Are Endless—a reflection, perhaps, of Edwyn Collins’s own perspective (“Looking back is not for me. Looking forward is the way”, he says before returning to the studio)—but its nuanced depiction of Collins and Maxwell’s complicity and strength in the face of enormous odds is powerful, beautiful and inspiring. A truly remarkable film, and one that deserves to find a wide audience—much like “A Girl Like You” did twenty years ago.