Singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran may be used to pouring out emotions in captivating lyrics, but the global superstar has never been more candid and open with fans than in his new documentary series Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All. Launching on Disney+ in May, the four-part show comes from filmmakers Ben Winston and Ben Turner, who help to shed light on Sheeran’s journey in recent years.
The result is a raw and compelling look at how grief can permeate almost every aspect of your life but still not drag you fully under the rolling waves of emotion that rise and fall with the ups and downs that come with it. Focusing on the creation of Sheeran’s latest entry in the Mathematics series of albums, – (Subtract), the show also depicts the challenges faced in the wake of his friend Jamal Edwards’ death and a cancer scare for his wife, Cherry.
“I’ve known Ed for many years. We first met back in the One Direction days when I was doing their movie,” Winston recalls. “We stayed in touch over the years. Meanwhile, Ben Turner and Gabe Turner had an idea for Ed for a totally different series that one day we hope we will also make. And at the same time, we were making a few things for Disney,” Winston adds, citing Elton John Live: Farewell from Dodger Stadium and The Kardashians.
According to the executive producer, Disney was interested in collaborating with Sheeran, “they were such big fans of his.” And so, when Sheeran appeared during a week-long residency on The Late Late Show, which Winston also executive produced, the pair discussed collaborating, unaware of the turns Sheeran’s life would take in the months ahead. “I said, ‘Ben and Gabe have a really good idea for a series. Disney really wants you on their network, would you ever do it? And he said, ‘Well, I would do that show, and I might do Disney, but actually I wanna do something different. Maybe we should do a sort of a doc.’”
In turn, Winston suggested an all-access-style documentary. “At that time, we could never have predicted the various things that he was gonna go through in the year that we were filming him, whether it be Cherry’s health scare, whether it be Jamal passing away, or the court cases.” But that didn’t deter Winston as he acknowledges, “the best documentaries are sometimes the ones when you don’t know the story when you set out to make them.”
Turner echoes Winston, adding, “It is a bit of a joke in our office, but it is quite true that at the end of nearly any documentary pitch, we say to the people we’re pitching that everything we’ve told you is the worst case scenario because hopefully we’re gonna start and the story’s gonna take off.”
“Ideally, we don’t know what the hell’s gonna happen. This was definitely one of those instances. I think as it went on, all those things that happened became the reason why he wanted to do it,” Turner says of Sheeran. For anyone familiar with the artist, Sheeran’s quite closed off about his personal life, and this is the first real window into his life beyond the music featuring one-on-one conversations with Cherry, whom he’s known since childhood, as well as moments with his parents, Imogen and John. However, his two young daughters were off-limits.
“The only line with his kids, he didn’t want them on screen because it’s not fair on them; they’re too young,” Turner notes. Despite their lack of presence onscreen, they can be heard at different moments while shooting, which Turner says is because “they are part of his story and they’re part of his life. Their presence is hugely part of the story and what they’re doing. So you want to find a way of getting the best of both worlds in that sense.”
Winston says the allusion to Sheeran’s kids in those moments, “just reminds you subconsciously that you’re watching a dad and a mom rather than Ed Sheeran and his wife.”
“It was amazing working with him,” Turner says of the experience. “We all know he’s a hard worker, we all know he is an amazing creative talent, and I think he recognized this documentary is about him, and it’s about his life. And so, ultimately, it’s as personal and significant a record for him as one of his albums. He approached it like that.”
Despite its significance, Winston makes it clear that although Sheeran was an active participant in the process, he remained hands-off to an extent. “He didn’t want to be an executive producer on the show, which I thought was really interesting cuz most artists ask for a credit, and he was like, ‘no, I don’t want a credit. I haven’t made this, you’ve made this about me.’”
Sheeran left the editing process up to Winston, Turner, and the rest of the team. “[He] might have corrected something that we got wrong [about] little intricate details, but I think he was sort of very moved by it, and he never gave creative notes,” Winston reveals.
“He was very committed to the emotional truth of the whole thing,” Turner concurs.
Much of that emotion comes from Sheeran’s grief over Jamal Edwards’ death; the 31-year-old was the founder of SBTV, an online platform that helped hurtle Sheeran to stardom over ten years ago with acoustic performances of his songs like “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.” Around the same time that Sheeran was experiencing this grief journey, Winston and Turner were going through their own grief with the losses of their mothers, who had been longtime friends. “Ed’s a songwriter. He’s a lyrist. There are emotions that you feel when you go through something like that that you can’t always explain,” Winston notes. “He can explain it better,” he adds, noting Sheeran’s talent for putting feelings into music.
The documentary arrived on May 3, just two days before – (Subtract) was released, but in Winton’s eyes, this series is far from promotional. “I actually think on this occasion, it’s different. I actually think this was about explaining the album And actually, I think for Ed and for us, it’s actually about understanding what’s behind it and what it’s about.”
Featuring songs such as “Eyes Closed” and “Boat,” Sheeran’s new album was featured in various performances within the docuseries, which get quite emotional as he recounts the moments when he and Cherry learned about her cancer diagnosis while she was six months pregnant with their second child and coming to terms with Jamal’s death and the lasting impact that will have on him.
There are a lot of tears shed and sure to be shed over it all, but Sheeran’s optimism remains, glowing on the edges through milestone moments like reaching a new year with the release of his album on the horizon, performing with Eminem for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and much more. It’s an eye-opening watch for those less aware of the hitmaker’s personal story, which Winston and Turner handle carefully.
Whether you tune in for the music or wish to delve deeper into Sheeran’s life, The Sum of It All sums it up.
Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All, Streaming now, Disney+