Directed by Andrew Wall, Produced by Kyle Bornais, Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey (Refuge 31 Films, 2014). Documentary, run time: 98 minutes.
The first thought that came to mind when I picked up Andrew Wall’s documentary Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey, was, “Wow, Steve Bell is still at this? The guy is a soldier.” Anyone who can still be in the music industry all these years deserves to be the subject of a documentary.
This film is the definitive story of Steve Bell. It is not, as I initially thought, a music video compilation or a concert film; rather, it provides a skilled telling of Bell’s career in the form of a biographical documentary. I would have liked more music, but the story is a good one.
Wall structures the film by cutting between excerpts from live performances in venues around North America, interviews with notable fans or collaborators, and footage of Bell’s travels and set-up on the road. Just as being on the road as a musician is Bell’s life, the journey is really the metaphor of the film, and this is the story of Bell’s career.
As it is biography, I was tentative at the outset that the film could sustain my interest for ninety-seven minutes, but there are many intriguing turns to the story of Bell’s career that keep the narrative flowing. The film begins with the roots of Bell’s life as a preacher’s kid, accompanying his chaplain father to the local penitentiary for ministry. This is Bell’s origin story—apprenticing on guitar with inmates in the jail on Sunday afternoons. Bell tours with a bar band for a while, until he finds his calling as a singer-songwriter with an eye set towards the sacred. In between performances and interviews, Bell provides backstory to the writing of various songs, as in his worship hit, “On the Wings of an Eagle.”
The story of Bell’s career allows for a parallel exploration of aspects of the music industry, including changing formats, record labels, radio stations, and venues. Bell’s own company, Signpost Music, rides these waves of opportunity for decades until the double impact of music downloads and the economic meltdown of 2008. Every great story needs conflict like this.
The film depicts Bell’s dogged efforts to reach audiences, and over the span of his career, to break out and make it big in both the American market and audiences beyond the Christian ghetto. This sort of musical Cinderella story is itself a film genre, and Burning Ember displays many similarities to the documentary Love Shines that follows Ron Sexsmith’s career struggles. What makes these films interesting is the dilemma of persistence and motivation. Is there enough economic and cultural reward for an artist, or do they have enough intrinsic motivation to continue? For Bell, the answer includes a bit of both. The ember of faith remains constant, but the artistic and entrepreneurial aspects of being a musician continue to evolve. He collaborates with a British poet, performs with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and tries his hand at writing an ebook.
Burning Ember asks the viewer to consider the new realities facing artists in the age of downloads and mp3s. The film depicts Bell late in his career, still full of enthusiasm for his craft, but clearly getting older. Bell’s life story of making a living in music is framed in a way that is retrospective, but not a gloomy epilogue. But can there be another Steve Bell? After Bell, will there be musicians this dedicated and devoted, with stamina for a long journey like his? Will there still be audiences that attend shows and buy an artist’s music to a level that supports a lifelong career? I hope so.
The DVD includes deleted scenes and a bonus CD compilation of Bell’s music.
Kevin Nikkel is a filmmaker and teacher based in Winnipeg.