‘Ken, Remember When We Began?’: U.K. Folk Icon Donovan on Working With Ken Loach on His First Feature Film

On a recent morning in Cannes, Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan sat over coffee at the Hotel Martinez and recalled a phone call he received nearly 60 years ago, not long after he’d made a splash on the British folk scene. On the other end of the line was a rising screenwriter and director called Ken Loach. “He said he was making his first feature…and would I help him with the music?” Donovan told Variety.

The film, a kitchen sink drama called “Poor Cow,” based on a novel by British playwright and author Neil Dunn, tells the story of a working-class single mother leading a hard-luck life in the slums of London. It’s a movie that set the tone for the type of social drama that propelled Loach throughout a remarkable, prolific career.

This week at the Cannes Film Festival, Loach will bow what he says will be his final film, “The Old Oak,” which premieres May 26 in competition for the Palme d’Or — a feat that Donovan describes as “extraordinary” at the tail-end of a career spanning nearly six decades.

“I really want to say hello to Ken,” the singer said. “I just wanted something — even a quick photo with him — and say, ‘Ken, remember when we began? You called me!’”

Donovan is in Cannes this week to promote “Tales of Aluna,” an animated adventure-comedy series created by the singer and wife Linda, which was presented at a market showcase on May 22 hosted by Animaze – The Montreal International Animation Festival. (See the trailer below.) The tale of a musician and his entourage who crash land on a secret, magical island inhabited by a half-spirit, half-human girl and her protector, the series plays on the ecologically minded Donovan’s lifelong preoccupation with living in harmony with nature.

The singer also took part in a discussion on May 21 hosted by the American Pavilion, “The Art of Movie Music,” about the lucrative business of music licensing for films and TV shows. It’s a subject that Donovan is also exploring with a new series of the same name that he describes as “a variety talk show filmed in the Metaverse,” which features animated interviews between the Scottish folk icon and other recording artists. The singer is also partnering with director David Lynch, who contributed to the discussion by video-link at the American Pavilion on Sunday, for a new venture focused on transcendental meditation.

Donovan, who was born in Glasgow, emerged on the U.K. folk scene in 1965 and broke out the following year with the album “Sunshine Superman,” which topped the Billboard chart in the U.S. and reached #2 in the U.K. At his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, the singer was credited with “singlehandedly initiat[ing] the psychedelic revolution” with his breakthrough album.

The 77-year-old musician has been licensing songs throughout his career, most recently in Zach Cregger’s 2022 horror hit “Barbarian,” in a memorable — and jolting — scene where his 1970 single “Riki Tiki Tava” plays on the car radio as Justin Long barrels down a sundrenched stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. “When music is in a movie, it has a powerful effect,” Donovan said. “It is an extraordinary element that can be used by filmmakers to focus a certain emotion.”

Speaking of his collaboration with Loach, the singer said he hadn’t met the director before working together on “Poor Cow,” though he knew of Loach through his BBC television movie “Cathy Come Home,” a social drama about a British woman’s downward slide through her country’s beleaguered welfare system. That movie, said Donovan, “developed some of the lines” of the director’s debut — and inspired him to pen several original songs for the movie.

“This was the first time I’d seen a socially conscious filmmaker in that way,” he said. “Ken phoned me up particularly, because I think he [recognized] the socially conscious lyrics I was introducing to popular songs. It would become quite common after a while, speaking of social issues. But when I began in ’64 and ’65, it was all ‘I love you, why’d you make me blue?’” He added: “When I saw Ken making these films, I thought it was wonderful.”

Donovan contributed three songs to “Poor Cow,” including “Be Not Too Hard,” which plays during the film’s opening sequence and would later be covered by Joan Baez. “It was a protest song, and that’s what Ken wanted — that kind of lyric,” said the singer, who borrowed several lines from the poet Christopher Logue as inspiration. Pausing over the breakfast din at the Martinez, he leaned forward and softly sang the refrain: “Be not too hard for life is short/And nothing is given to man.”

“The Old Oak” will be Loach’s 18th film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and 15th to bow in competition. He is one of only nine filmmakers to win the Palme d’Or twice, for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006) and “I, Daniel Blake” (2016). The director, who turns 87 next month, has announced his retirement before, most recently when his gig-economy, social-justice drama “Sorry We Missed You” bowed on the Croisette in 2019. But Loach insists that “The Old Oak” will be his curtain call, citing his declining faculties due to old age.

Meanwhile, here’s a clip for “Tales of Aluna,” which Donovan is shopping in Cannes:

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