Everyone knows Edwyn Collins’ “A Girl Like You.” It was a massive radio hit in 1995 thanks to a featured role in Empire Records, serving as the aural backdrop to Gina and Rex Manning’s back-office quickie. Few know that a decade later, Edwyn Collins suffered a massive brain hemorrhage, resulting in almost complete amnesia and aphasia (the loss of the ability to remember how to speak, read or write). Collins spent the next six months in the hospital with his wife Grace Maxwell by his side, though he didn’t consciously know who she was, and only able to mutter the words “yes” and “no,” his wife’s name and, curiously, the phrase “the possibilities are endless.”
The Possibilities are Endless is an ambitious documentary, telling the story of Collins’ eventual recovery but eschewing the typical bio-doc format. We barely see Collins or his wife, the film’s primary narrators, and the first 15-to-20 minutes of the film are, instead, full of a variety of images overlaid with a narrative by Collins about his confusion in those days and months after the stroke. “Ideas in my head respond to things going on, trigger memories — it’s all a bit hazy, it’s confusing.” And so, too, is the opening third of the movie hazy and confusing. It’s very off-putting, if not a little too “artsy,” and exactly what directors James Hall and Edward Lovelace are trying to do. Rather than simply presenting talking heads walking us through Collins’ experience, Hall and Lovelace provide a more visceral and cinematic experience — the viewer enters the film generally as confused and unknowing of Collins’ past as Collins himself was upon waking from his hemorrhage. As Collins and Maxwell talk through the slow road to recovery and rebuilding Collins’ memory, the film employs some clever visualizations of this process before gradually transitioning to a more standard-fare documentary.
While clever and unique, this first half of the film is not entirely successful. Some of the voiceover also gets a little too hyperbolic, and Maxwell herself puts the cap on this notion, talking about how random phrases like “the possibilities are endless” would pop out of Collins’ mouth and seem deep at first, but lose that meaning when heard tens of times in a single day. And though the approach largely succeeds at its goals of offering a visceral experience, there’s a consequential coldness to this portion of the documentary. You understand some of the confusion and pain that Collins is going through but, knowing little about him and less about his wife, you don’t really connect or feel anything aside from this confusion and fascination with the mental and emotional trauma resulting from Collins’ stroke.
As the film moves into more standard form, however, it quickly makes that emotional connection, both in its telling of Grace and Edwyn’s love story, and in showing Edwyn’s connection with his music and studio (“it was deep in his DNA”). This portion is also not without its flaws, particularly insofar as we lose some of the thread of Collins’ actual recovery, with less focus on the grind of how he got back to where he is now, a capable speaker with a recovered ability to perform (although he needs the help of his wife or another to strum the guitar, while his other hand covers the frets). But the reasons that The Possibilities are Endless stumbles as a standard bio-doc are also exactly what make it a uniquely intimate and personal documentary.
The Possibilities Are Endless had its world premiere at the South by Southwest 2014 Film Festival.