Even if you’re not into his lumpen folk-rock polemics, this documentary and concert film goes a long way to explaining Dublin singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey’s unshakeable home-crowd following, and why – as we see at the beginning of Ross Killeen’s reflective film – he is able to pack out a series of gigs every Christmas. Dempsey’s story makes a fine case for music as personal balm, but juxtaposing it with three of his fans’ personal histories deepens the scope of his art into a true act of public communion and shared healing. At least, if the deluge of tears streaming down concertgoers’ cheeks here is anything to go by.
The three Dubliners we hear from are elegant recovering heroin addict Nadia, who “gave up on life” after her brother’s murder; boxing coach Packy, gripped by social phobia since his teens and witness to the alleyway shooting of a friend; and longbearded Jonathan, a reformed alcoholic once traumatically attacked by a schoolteacher, who has discovered new meaning in life. The Dublin street-life nuggets – shot in beautifully desolate black and white by cinematographer Narayan van Maele – could be straight out of Dempsey’s lyrics. Unsurprisingly, there are close correspondences in the musician’s past: the shy working-class boy who started to sail close to the wind after his parents’ divorce and had his road to Damascus moment after being beaten senseless by 15 people. “It was a good little left-right,” he says. “It put me on a better path.”
As well as its refreshing emphasis on mental health, and the importance of self- and mutual care, Love Yourself Today also makes clear how rooted in Irish tradition and folk ideals Dempsey is; the sweaty, chest-beating mass therapy of his Christmas concerts is an outsized version of the living-room family “singsongs” of his youth. “Don’t ever think the music comes from you. It comes through you,” is just one of the many platitudes Dempsey, who looks like a soulful bouncer, serves up. With his mum in the audience, who’s going to argue with that?