Society has a way of demanding that we find our career path early and stick to it, not only as a definition of character but also a bogus demarcation of success. Sigríður Níelsdóttir, a woman who started making music at the age of 70 to become something of a phenomenon, tosses that conventional idea right out the window. Armed with a mighty Casio keyboard, a dual cassette deck recording and dubbing system, and the same noisemakers everyone else has in their house, this plucky septuagenarian set up her studio in her kitchen and started her musical career with nothing else in mind other than the infectious joy of creating.
And as if reading our minds, the lyrics in the song that opens Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigríður Níelsdóttir announces, “That’s right. It’s never too late to start doing what you want.” A resident of Iceland, by way of Germany and Denmark, Níelsdóttir created 59 CDs and over 600 songs between the ages of 70 and 77 with little training. Although she studied piano for three years, she readily admits that she can’t read music, and that she has to edit out her mistakes. “That’s cheating, isn’t it?” she laughs. By the time we see Níelsdóttir pull her doily off her keyboard for a demonstration and show us her array of clever sound makers—recorded by plugging a mic into that dual cassette recorder—the film’s work is done. We are charmed. We are inspired.
Unfortunately, the film coasts on this irresistible personality and fails to draw out the storyline that hovers just below the surface. There are a fair amount of bells and whistles employed, namely hand drawn collages assembled into stop motion animation theatrics, but it feels like a diversion from the innate charisma of the subject. Hidden within the questions never asked are clues to why, at the age of 70, this idiosyncratic woman became absorbed in making music.
Directed by three musicians who forged a friendship with Níelsdóttir before deciding to shoot this humble and impressionistic portrait, Grandma Lo-fi is less of an in depth tell-all of a cult musical wonder than it is an inventive tribute to a late-in-life artist who passed away last year. In keeping with the analogue textures of Níelsdóttir music, the doc was shot primarily on Super 8 and 16mm, embellished with a conscious flicker and grain that comes with the format.
The music in question has a naïve magic combined with compulsive creation ala Wesley Willis. But unlike Willis, Níelsdóttir has a much more varied palette tapping into her Casio’s endless combinations of canned rhythms, beats and sounds and layered with a mix of her own vocals, sounds of her own invention, as well as ambient recordings from her everyday life. All of this gets dubbed and edited on cassette and mastered on CD, at which point Níelsdóttir creates handmade covers, and delivers to the record store. And it is very clear that she lives for every minute of it.
Interspersed throughout the film’s short 62 minutes are a number of Icelandic musicians who step in front of the camera to either sing to or play along with one of Níelsdóttir’s tune. And although we don’t see Björk or Sigur Rós, the musicians and bands nonetheless represent a sort of who’s who of indie Icelandic music: Sin Fang, múm, FM Belfast, Mr. Silla, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Mugison, and Kría Brekkan—all a testament to grandma lo-fi’s status in this influential bubble of society.
Níelsdóttir’s celebrity is never quantified, but it resides in the individuals that discovered her unassuming creativity, one person at a time. Its viral proliferation was no doubt as DIY as her art and music, relying on a more physical social network like good old fashioned word-of-mouth. At one point she looks at the camera and says, “Do you know how to make campfire sounds?” Even in the off chance that we might know, Níelsdóttir intends to share her own personal triumph with everyone. Although Grandma Lo-fi parries with more style than substance, there is nonetheless a feeling of gratitude in having been introduced to this unique and heartening individual, even if it is just a handshake.