“Who is Matt Deighton?” asks Squeeze’s Chris Difford at the start of Overshadowed before promptly answering his own question. “He’s the musical badger,” he says with a smirk.
Badger? Does he mean Badger from The Wind In The Willows, that steadfast loner of the Kenneth Grahame novel? If so, Difford may have captured the essence of this documentary’s subject in one go, because Matt Deighton is a songwriter who for too long has lived out in the wild wood, isolated and far from the public’s gaze. Until now, that is.
Kevin Lee Brown’s deftly weighted film is a labour of love several years in the making that seeks to discover why Matt has remained such a well-kept secret for so long. Having fronted his own successful band (Mother Earth) before going on to work with some of the biggest names in the business (Oasis, Weller, Brian Auger and Dr John), to those in the know he is the masterful writer of songs that touch the heart, as evinced in his highly acclaimed body of solo work.
The bare bones of the Deighton backstory are that by the time the bacchanalian mass of the Nineties had sputtered to a close, Deighton had turned inward and beat a retreat from the industry. Says the man himself “I spiralled… just a little bit”. Manic depression held him in its grip and, for a long while, the music stopped. Everything stopped. His genius was put on hold. But what had made him ill? Was it the industry grind that stymied him or his own unwillingness to compromise artistically? There’s a scene midway when Matt plays with the family dog, Tom. He’s a black dog and the irony is obvious. Deighton calls his depression “the new black”, but he’s not impressed by it because it’s no friend to him. His fate was to suffer from it. In his case, for his art.
Brown’s camera observes Deighton closely from a distance, lingering just out of reach, absorbing his almost ascetic mannerisms as he drinks a cup of coffee while listening to his record collection, as he walks alone in his beloved Welsh hills, or else, after a recording session in Andalucia, as he dangles his feet in the studio’s swimming pool. And the camera, in lingering, eventually manages to prise open the enigma just enough to reveal, behind Deighton’s mask of introspection, the inner steel of a serious man refusing to be silenced.
Much loved by his peers, as a solo artist he distilled his art into six soulful folk-tinged albums of quiet beauty (Villager, 1995; You Are The Healer, 2000; The Common Good, 2002; Wake Up The Moths, 2004; Kids Steal Feelings, 2017; and Doubtless Dauntless, 2018). A seventh would be Electric Blend (2015), the album he made as The Family Silver with Steve White and Damon Minchella.
As Bill Fay suggests in the film, Deighton is not so much a songwriter as a songfinder, standing out in the British musical firmament as a man not afraid to get lost in his craft, sometimes to the detriment of relationships and his own health. Other interviews with Kathryn Williams, Steve Nieve, Ben Trigg, Chris Difford, Damon Minchella, Paul Weller, Marti Pellow, Steve White, and Carleen Anderson serve as a historical framework in which we’re able to locate Deighton, the songwriter and musician, and the era from which he sprang. But most revealing of all is Matt’s brother, Paul, who lends a rare insight into a man who was born to make music.
Similar in tone to Malik Bendjelloul’s Looking for Sugar Man (2012) and Lili Fini Zanuck’s Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (2017), Kevin Lee Brown’s Overshadowed (borrowing its title from a Deighton classic) attempts to make sense of how a talent as large as Deighton’s was able to founder on the rocks of an industry that has for too long been run by moneymen hell bent on squeezing every quarter until the eagle screams.
As your humble reviewer asserts in Overshadowed, Matt Deighton is indeed the real deal, and at the heart of the tale lies Deighton’s reconciliation with his own uncompromising artistic vision. But let not this film be an epitaph to a talent as great as his, but rather the moment when he is unveiled to a wider, if not wiser audience as a songwriter and musician in secure possession of an extraordinary gift.
If there’s a villain of the piece, it is the industry itself; from the early days with Mother Earth, Deighton was quickly embraced as a songwriter of natural talent and depth, but this also marked him as a rival to wary, long-established songwriters. Arguably, Deighton had for too long allowed his own standing to be diminished by having dwelt in the shadows of the big names that he worked with. But that’s the nature of the business. The trick is to survive it, and he has.
And should we be able to take away any lesson from this film with which we ourselves can furnish our own lives, it is that no matter how bleak the prospect or hopeless the outlook, we should, like Matt Deighton, always have faith in that inner voice of ours that whispers ‘hold on, better times lie ahead’.
Jason Holmes / @JasonAHolmes
Overshadowed premieres on Sky Arts on 14 May @ 9pm