“Songwriter” director Murray Cummings gives Ed Sheeran fans an intimate and unparalleled look at the creative process behind his record-breaking third studio album ÷ (Divide) in his riveting documentary which was released for streaming via Apple Music on Aug. 28. The film follows Cummings’ internationally-renowned cousin for over a decade but focuses largely on the “Shape of You” singer’s journey into making and releasing what has arguably become his biggest album to date in a relatively short (thus far), but massively successful career.
Cummings summarizes the project nicely early on in the film’s trailer saying, “It’s just such a cool thing to witness, to watch an idea go from jam session to writing session, to become a song and the thing that people sing back to him at gigs. To watch that from start to finish is something special.”
Sheeran himself makes an eerily on-point prediction about Divide when he says, “I just have a weird sense, it’s gonna be the career-defining album.” He later adds, “The album, it’s the peak of my songwriting and musical ability … It might be that I never get this again. The last two albums were building up to something. This one, it definitely feels magical.”
“Magical” and “career-defining” seem like understatements in the wake of Divide’s astounding success. It topped charts in multiple countries, with all 16 of its tracks landing a spot on the Top 16 positions on the Irish Singles Chart upon its release. Ten of Divide’s tracks snagged a place in the UK Top 10 Singles Chart within its first week of release, with tracks holding all five of the UK Singles Top 5. Sheeran also set a record by scoring the highest opening-week album sales for any male artist in Official Charts history, moving 672,000 copies of Divide its first week and the list goes on.
“Songwriter” is a fitting title for Cummings’ captivating glimpse into how the 2017 Songwriter’s Hall of Fame Hal David Starlight Award recipient hones and excels at his craft. Sheeran is arguably a songwriting genius, who not only has a penchant for penning his own Grammy-winning hit songs, but, who also writes huge hits for other huge artists.
“Songwriter” documents the ginger-haired crooner as he writes the Grammy-winning song “Love Yourself,” which is co-written by its performer Justin Bieber and renowned producer Benny Blanco. Blanco co-executive produced Divide with Sheeran, along with Steve Mac, Johnny McDaid, Will Hicks and others and is featured heavily in the film.
Cummings follows Sheeran, Blanco, McDaid, a team of talented writers and musicians (including Julia Michaels, Foy Vance and “Thinking Out Loud” co-writer Amy Wadge) and other key people in Sheeran’s circle from stadium stages to dressing rooms to tour buses and even a transatlantic ship as Divide takes shape and makes its critically-acclaimed release. The “Perfect” singer also travels home to Suffolk, England, visits his former high school and music teacher and shares some tender moments with his fiancée Cherry Seaborn, his brother Matthew, and his dad John.
Even though there are a myriad of reasons to love “Songwriter,” we’ve listed five of our favorites below.
1. It shows Grammy-winning record producers are people too
Of course, we’re all people. At only 30, though, Benny Blanco is already a record-producing legend. He’s worked with music superstars like Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, Sia, Selena Gomez and more. “Songwriter” features multiple creative sessions between Blanco and Sheeran starting off with their team up on “Love Yourself” in which Blanco wisely advises Sheeran to stick with singing “you should go and love yourself” instead of Sheeran’s “colorful” but biting alternative “you should go and f**k yourself.”
Blanco shows a rare vulnerable side when he describes two back-to-back traumatic plane rides which prompted him to swear off flying. Hence, he and Sheeran board the majestic Queen Mary 2 to make the transatlantic trek from New York to London (and of course, they work while sailing the open sea). We also learn he likes string cheese and hates when labels ask him to do the same kind of song he’s already done.
2. It features movie clips of Ed’s childhood and a few rare, lovely Sheeran family moments
By now, diehard Sheerios have combed through YouTube to find clips of Ed Sheeran as a sweet, ginger-haired child. “Songwriter” features several more of them in which we watch the Grammy-winning superstar play a variety of instruments beyond his signature acoustic guitar including the piano, drums, cello and electric guitar. We also watch wee Ed run through the fields by the “castle on the hill” and see a baby-faced Ed in a recording booth.
Two rare and special family moments are shown when Ed plays the Divide album for his dad and then wells with tears while playing his emotional tribute song about his grandma’s passing to him for the first time. He warns his father they can’t play it for “mommy” yet because it will make her cry. After hearing the song, his father gently agrees.
The film also takes a breathtaking behind-the-scenes look at the recording of the orchestral version of “Perfect” at Abbey Road Studios. Ed’s brother Matthew composed the orchestral arrangement on the track and then Ed sings it while he’s backed by symphony musicians. Ed has repeatedly dubbed “Perfect” as his favorite song on the album. At the end of the session, the Sheeran brothers pose for a photo on the studio steps and Ed quickly seeks Matthew’s blessing asking, “Do you love it?” to which Matthew responds “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
A comical moment follows when the “Galway Girl” singer finds his fiancée and tells her “It was really fun! I enjoyed it” and someone asks Cherry, “So that was about you then?” She jokingly replies, “He’s got a piece on the side he’s singing about.”
3. Speaking of Cherry, there are lots of neat still shots of the happy couple’s year-long hiatus together
Cummings films his cousin’s Twitter announcement about taking a break “to travel the world and see what I missed.” Cummings includes a fun montage of still photos showcasing the happy couple’s year-long whirlwind globe-trotting adventure. They dive, ski, fly and more in various scenic locales and in one picture, Seaborn is standing next to Sheeran wearing a beautiful kimono.
4. An interesting fact about “Shape of You” is revealed
The British native singer-songwriter has broken all sorts of sales, streaming and chart records with Divide’s sultry lead single “Shape of You.” “Songwriter” reveals an interesting fact about the track: It was written toward the end of the album, after “Album Delivery Day” when Sheeran plays the album for label execs who tell him something’s missing and they need a “rhythmic” track to lead the record campaign.
In the car after the meeting Sheeran says, “I’ve got an idea of a song in my head that I think could sort this out.” Rather crazy, isn’t it, that “Shape of You” basically went on to help Sheeran and Divide achieve global music domination?
5. “Songwriter” solidifies Ed Sheeran’s enduring status as a musical and lyrical genius
Murray Cummings was right from the start. It really is something special to witness Ed Sheeran give birth to a song – from just an idea in his head to strumming out melodies and polishing lyrics and then putting it all together and gifting it to his listeners. Sheeran has always been a highly-private public figure. So, gaining this kind of inside access into his work and life is priceless.
And, in one regard, he’s right. Divide does feel like a summit toward which his other albums were reaching. But, we’re also confident the "Dive" singer has many more stories to tell – whether it’s via Subtract, or an EP, or some other project. Ed Sheeran has a rare gift and inner light that shines in his songs and we don’t see it fading any time soon.