Bruce Cockburn is one of the world’s greatest musical icons, not just a Canadian one who has seen his songs covered by countless other artists while his own career and fan base still thrives. Making a documentary tracing the life of such a fascinating and genuinely likeable guy as he is shouldn’t be that difficult, but Joel Goldberg’s Bruce Cockburn – Pacing the Cage never does a single thing beyond only a small smattering of facts, some good anecdotes, and a mix of new and archival interviews, all of which say nothing more than “Man, Bruce Cockburn is excellent.”
Goldberg follows Cockburn around on a 2008 solo tour as he records a live album that would be released the following year, and it would be a safe bet that probably half the film is made up of concert footage that looks like it was shot strictly for television use only (and at public access levels) since it’s almost entirely films either in wide shots from what appears to be a balcony or in black and white dutch angles. These sequences are inarguably still the best in the film, since a documentary about Cockburn should focus on the music, anyway. It’s a testament to Cockburn’s abilities as a showman, song writer, and all around powerful force of nature to still make these numbers undeniably powerful.
Outside of the music, however, the film is barely more than something feeling like a belated EPK for Cockburn than a real documentary. (A lot of this tone might come from producer and Cockburn manager Bernie Finkelstein, who also seems to be allotted the most interview time here for both obvious and possibly selfish reasons.) There’s talk about how Cockburn has amassed quite the faith based Christian audience despite having radical views on the subject and a bit more about how much activism of various sorts means to him, but these moments are about as deep, well rounded, and on-the-nose as someone could get from Cockburn’s Wikipedia entry. Bono puts him over as a activist, poet, psalmist, and songwriter right out of the gate at the top of the film, and almost nothing else needs to be said about it. A team-up between Romeo Dalliare and Cockburn at a University of Victoria should add the proper context we’re looking for, but it’s incredibly bland and very poorly shot.
It’s all lightweight and almost entirely drama free, which on one level is fine since Cockburn is such a laid back and charming personality that him just speaking about his own life would have been enough. The scholars and celebrity cameos don’t add nearly as much as Cockburn just talking to the camera and speaking for himself both through his music and his wonderful anecdotes. Considering the movie is only 65 minutes long (obviously originally intended and probably still intended for television broadcast, produced in part by ZoomerMedia), maybe the right thing to do would have been to just cut everyone else out of the film except for Bruce. No one can tell Bruce’s life story better than he can, and if there’s as little meat to chew on as this effort seems to suggest, maybe just a straight up concert film would have been the way to go.