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Donovan Talks Celebrating His Soundtrack for Franco Zeffirelli’s ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’ With Italy’s President and Franciscan Monks (EXCLUSIVE)

In the early 1970s, Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan wrote and recorded songs for the English version of Italian director Franco Zeffirelli’s film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” about the early years of St. Francis of Assisi, that evoked the “flower power” hippie movement and developed a cult following.

Half a century later, Donovan traveled to Italy last week to watch a freshly restored version of the film in two celebratory events. The first was an intimate private screening held in Rome’s Quirinale Palace for Italian President Sergio Mattarella and a select group of officials, and the next was in Florence, the late Zeffirelli’s birthplace, where the Zeffirelli Foundation held a free screening open to the public attended by a copious contingent of Franciscan monks.

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Donovan, who was born in Glasgow, emerged on the U.K. folk scene in 1965. He broke out the following year with the album “Sunshine Superman,” which topped the Billboard chart in the U.S. and reached No. 2 in the U.K. At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, the singer, known for a string of hits that include “Mellow Yellow,” was credited with “singlehandedly initiating the psychedelic revolution” with his breakthrough album.

But, much to his fans’ dismay, an album of Donovan’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” recordings was never released. Since acquiring the rights to the original recordings proved problematic, Donovan in 2004 re-recorded them acoustically and released what he calls “troubador-style” versions of the “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” tracks online. (The album is available directly from donovan.ie.) Therefore, the film’s restoration with the original English-language soundtrack was a way to celebrate both Zeffirelli’s film and his muted music.

Below, Donovan tells Variety why the film, and its songs, means so much to him.

How did your collaboration with Zeffirelli originate? The Beatles had been asked to appear in this movie in the main roles, but were allegedly unable due to scheduling conflicts.

In 1971, when Franco was seeking a poet and a soundtrack for the film, he initially reached out to Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Cohen, but they bowed out, as did Paul Simon. So he called me and said, “I would like you to be involved.” I can’t remember the first piece I put together, but I was very excited. There in the studio, at first Zeffirelli said, “I would like authentic music.” I said, “Well, that’s a bit difficult. It’s way back in the 12th century. But how about the 15th or the 16th century?” And he said, “OK.” So I flew in an antique ensemble orchestra from London to the studio in Rome. And when the chaps came and got their instruments going, it was so raw and rough and randy and street. It wasn’t going to work with the extraordinary, beautiful photography that Zeffirelli wanted. So I said, “I think we better bring in a string quartet.” And Ken Thorne, the great British arranger of film music, was with me and he said, “Sure, we’ll put that together.” But then it still wasn’t lush enough. So we did what was needed to soften the antique sounds further and I think we managed to pull it off. That’s how it began.

Why is this anniversary so significant for you and why was the film’s English-language soundtrack never released as an album?

I saw the anniversary coming and it became very exciting for me. Why? Because there was no actual soundtrack album for fans. When we were leaving on that last day of recording the music, I turned to Zeffirelli as he left and I said, “Before you go, Franco, what about the soundtrack album? Can I just tell the engineer to give me a copy of the sound strip?,” which was on the cellulose film in those days. He said, “Oh no, no soundtrack album.” And then I realized there would be no soundtrack album, but that’s OK. Franco came from this extraordinary world of opera where it was important to experience the complete event. The movie and the music is what people should come to see. So years passed, and then I decided I’d really like to record the Troubadour version, and I did.

How did you feel during the “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” celebrations?

Well, all these reverberations are important. It’s not just Donovan wanting to celebrate the 50th year of the music and the wonderful story that links with the revolutionary time of young Francis. Of course, it’s Italy and it has to be Italy. And it had to be an official governmental recognition because Francis is like “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Saint Francis superstar of the Catholic church.

Donovan in Florence
Donovan and his wife Linda Lawrence with Franciscan monks at the March 17 screening of “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” in Florence.

What are you up to in terms of other creative projects these days?

Well, it’s cheeky to say, but I didn’t get involved in this game for the usual combination of fame, celebrity, rock ‘n’ roll music and have a great time. It was out of the Bohemian cafes, of course, and I could say that pretty much everything was laid out and done by 1969 or ’70. So I just said, “If the songs are going to keep coming, I will keep doing.” And so I continued to develop themes, which it seems to me is what a poet does and a painter does. But I’m actually taking a year off for a 60th anniversary event. What’s that going to be? It’s not a tour and a hooray and a big wave to the world; it’s going to be select.

The performance will be in seven to 10 capital cities with an orchestra, with a youth element that will explore the Donovan song catalog, which begins with a simple acoustic guitar and develops into a fusion of jazz and classical and chamber orchestra style. And highlighting soloists that are just arriving in their teens and can’t wait to actually experiment. And the show will be available on screen. You don’t have to come. I think it will probably be free, though we’ve got to maybe get some money in to actually pay the orchestra. But, I’m OK. Publishing looks after me and I’m very happy to say that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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