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The Ballad of Hugh: a documentary

Alumnus teams with U of T retiree

Hugh Oliver wants to prove age is no barrier to musical success (photo from The Ballad of Hugh)

With the camera crew and musicians arranged, Hugh Oliver steps into the Canterbury studio’s vintage atmosphere and prepares for his shot at musical stardom. He is determined and energized to perform.

And he’s 82.

Ten years ago a mutual friend united Oliver with Innis College alumnus Marco DiFelice (1994). DiFelice has been involved in the television industry as a music supervisor for shows such as Degrassi, Grey’s Anatomy and currently the new season of Lost Girl.

“[Hugh] would play a lot of gigs around town,” recalls DiFelice. “I thought it was pretty special to see someone of his age with a will to perform.”

As a former editor-in-chief of OISE Press, Oliver has a lifelong passion for poetry and writing lyrics but it was his eagerness for performance which inspired DiFelice to create a documentary.

The Ballad of Hugh premiered at the North by Northeast Festivals and Conference (NXNE) in June to many positive reviews. Further screenings are scheduled in Toronto at The Royal Cinema in October.

DiFelice, a first-time director, compares the storyboard of the film to that of a playlist, using scenes of music, poetry, and everyday life to subtly tell Oliver’s story and to demonstrate that age is no barrier to musical fame.

“I really had not much idea what the film was going to be, and nor I think did Marco. I wouldn’t say it was carefully planned,” says Oliver

(Watch Oliver and DiFelice rehearse in studio here)

Born in 1929 in the small town of Epsom, England, Oliver is a raconteur who shares his humorous anecdotes and vast experience through the film. He recalls writing songs with his neighbour Glyn Johns in the '50s before immigrating to Canada.

Johns would eventually become one of the greatest music producers of all time; working with the likes of The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles.

Although the film revolves around the life of Oliver, DiFelice delivers an underlying message.

“I’m strongly impressed, but at the same time disgusted, with today’s obsession with youth in terms of pop sensations. They just start getting younger and younger,” says the director, who belonged to a band himself before being a music supervisor. “I feel sorry for the kids, I actually think some of them are really talented but they are shown the limelight way too young.”

Through the film, DiFelice aims to show the opposite: someone in their 80s who is still maturing, still changing, still exploring, and still hasn’t ‘made it.'

Oliver promotes himself using social media such as Facebook and Twitter. On YouTube he delivers sarcastic commentary through song on celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Adele, and Justin Bieber.

“He’s just a good target,” jokes Oliver. “I’ve got nothing against [Bieber] personally; I admire what he’s achieved.”

The documentary and YouTube videos may have changed Oliver’s life in terms of recognition, but music is an art he’s been seeking to perfect for decades.

“Hugh’s horrible, he’s horrible – I’ve created a monster!” laughs DiFelice. “I can’t deal with his ego anymore.”

In reality, Oliver simply laughs when asked about the possibility of stardom and stays humble.

“I don’t think I’ve ever contemplated any great fame,” he says. “It’s totally unrealistic.”

DiFelice doesn’t share the same opinion.

“We’re trying to show Hugh to the world and we think that he has an interesting lens,” says DiFelice. “I think Hugh should be a star, I think he actually can be a star.”

Screening dates at The Royal are:
Oct 23 – 7:00pm
Oct 24 – 7:00pm
Oct 25 – 9:30pm