Anyone who's ever tried to write anything succinctly, whether an email or a novel, knows the sweet agony of the writing process. Taking the project from the germ of an idea to a fully formed creation always makes it clear that having written provides much more pleasure than the act itself. However, watching a writer work through the undertaking can be entertaining — at least when that person's a Grammy-winning musician. The new documentary Songwriter chronicles the writing process of Ed Sheeran as the singer made his third studio album, Divide, and it gives fans an intimate look at the long journey from snippet to song.
In theaters Aug. 17 and on Apple Music Aug. 28, the documentary provides unfettered access to Sheeran's writing process, which makes sense seeing as it was directed by the singer's cousin, Murray Cummings. Over the course of the film, viewers watch as Sheeran cranks out some of the biggest musical hits of the last year, including "Love Yourself" and "Shape of You." From debating the song titles to fine-tuning each track's mixes, Sheeran's hit-making finesse is a fascinating watch. Just like when the singer's pal Taylor Swift released clips of her writing tracks off Reputation, there is something immediate and relatable about watching an artist at the top of their game make their music and struggle with how to get each song perfectly right.
The stakes for Divide are raised when the documentary not only reminds fans that Sheeran took a total social media break to focus on traveling the world and writing music (no pressure), but also reveals the singer's high hopes for the album. "(It's) the peak of my songwriting and musical ability," Sheeran says at one point in the film. That's a lofty claim, but it's clear from watching the creation of hits like "Castle on a Hill", "Nancy Mulligan," and the live orchestration of "Perfect" that the singer was right to have such confidence in himself.
Still, for every triumphant hook or fitting lyric, Sheeran also has days where the writing isn't coming together, as the film shows. At one point in the doc, he's up before sunrise, drinking tea, and strumming casually on his guitar. On a roll for a second, he slowly stops and remarks, "Songs are weird things. They just come and go. They never give you any warning." If Sheeran can struggle with a lyric, we can all give ourselves a break for that essay we've put off writing the introduction for, or that email we just haven't yet sent.
Songwriter also provides key insights into the people that make up Sheeran's inner circle, from music producer Benny Blanco, who encourages him to write a song about not wanting to write a song (cough, cough, "Love Yourself"), to fiance Cherry Seaborn, who adorably dances with Sheeran to his songs. Fans even get to watch Sheeran's father, John, hearing tracks from his son's album for the first time. Additional songwriters filter in and out of the film, including Julia Michaels and Ryan Tedder, painting a complete picture of the power that goes into creating chart-topping music. As shown in other music documentaries, such as Lady Gaga's Five Foot Two, the creation and success of great songs is due in part to the inspiring people songwriters surround themselves with.
But Songwriter isn't only about Sheeran's writing process today. There is plenty of young Ed home movie footage featured in the doc, including a peek at the recording of one of Sheeran's first songs ever, appropriately titled, "Typical Average Teen." (We all have to start somewhere.) Songwriter shows how Sheeran even recently made time to roam the halls of his old school to impart songwriting wisdom on current students, telling them to "finish bad songs," in order to ensure that their tainted remnants don't find a way into other songs.
Considering Divide debuted at number one and earned Sheeran Grammys for both Best Pop Vocal Album and Pop Solo Performance for "Shape of You," the singer's songwriting process evidently works for him. But the doc acts as a reminder that it takes a lot of bare-boned hard work to craft a quality product. Sometimes the words will seemingly write themselves and other times, nothing will drag them out — but you can rest assured that it's the same situation for award-winning celebs and all of us.