“Ed Sheeran‘s made giant pop records that are easy to criticise,” The National’s Aaron Dessner, who co-wrote and produced Sheeran’s upcoming album ‘-’, said recently. The thing is, though, ‘-’ isn’t just another Ed Sheeran pop record.
“For the first time I’m not trying to craft an album people will like,” he explained when the new record, due for release on Friday (May 5), was announced back in March. “I’m merely putting something out that’s honest and true to where I am in my adult life.” Sheeran has spoken candidly about finding himself “spiralling through fear, depression and anxiety” following a string of traumatic events in his personal life, and The Sum Of It All, a new Disney+ documentary, follows Sheeran on that turbulent journey.
Split into four parts titled Love, Loss, Focus and Release, the two-hour series wastes little time in establishing Sheeran as an unlikely global superstar. “I’m speccy, ginger-hair, really short, English, from the countryside, who stutters and beatboxes,” he explains, before revealing how he meticulously planned the string of five albums that have paved his way to the very top. “That guy doesn’t become a popstar – but I believe in speaking things into existence.” The 32-year-old is clearly proud of what he’s achieved and his abilities as a songwriter, but rather than embark on a victory lap ahead of the final “symbol” album, this documentary serves as Sheeran’s attempt to show people that he’s more than just a hit machine.
Part one explores his relationship with his wife Cherry Seaborn, who was diagnosed with cancer at the start of 2022 (following her diagnosis, Sheeran wrote seven songs in four hours – including ‘Vega’, which features on ‘-’). The day after getting the elating news that Seaborn’s tumour wasn’t as serious as they first thought, Sheeran’s best friend Jamal Edwards died. With part two of The Sum Of It All focusing on the fallout from that tragic death, we see Sheeran throwing himself into work as a way to cope while his wife worries about his mental health.
Understandably, The Sum Of It All is, at times, uncomfortably raw watching. On more than one occasion, Sheeran breaks down in tears before then looking embarrassed at the camera. “Weirdly, he’s a man of few words,” Seaborn notes at one point, adding that songwriting is her husband’s preferred way of expressing himself. This moving footage is juxtaposed with shots of Sheeran performing joyous stadium shows and working with the likes of Max Martin, Stormzy and Fred again.., while there’s also a rare glimpse into his Suffolk pub, The Lancaster Lock.
As it unfolds, The Sum Of It All becomes a warped coming-of-age tale that hones in on Sheeran’s struggles to deal with loss and fit his work around his young family. At times, the series is messy: it rarely sticks to a strict narrative structure, and some big questions about what might come next for Sheeran are left unanswered. But there are glimmers of optimism towards the end. By the time that filming wraps on New Year’s Eve 2022, Seaborn is in much better health and Sheeran’s visceral tribute to Edwards at Stamford Bridge becomes a beautiful moment of catharsis for the artist.
“I don’t want my legacy to be ‘Shape Of You’ or ‘Perfect’,” Sheeran tells the filmmakers early on. “I would love for my legacy to be telling kids, ‘Just do what you want to do’.” The Sum Of It All isn’t quite an inspiring call to chase your dreams in the vein of Sheeran’s self-made success, but instead serves as a very human look at the healing power of music from one of the biggest pop stars around.
Ed Sheeran: The Sum Of It All is streaming on Disney+ now