What Makes Ed Sheeran Tick? Do We Care?

The four-part Disney+ documentary series Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All outfits the pop star with a behind-the-scenes doc. It's predictably bland.

What Makes Ed Sheeran Tick? Do We Care?
Ed Sheeran attends the premiere of Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All on May 02, 2023 in New York Photo:Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Disney+ (Getty Images)

If you’re like me, at some point you wondered where Ed Sheeran came from. All of a sudden he was a thing, invading airwaves and weddings with his earnest odes and gently R&B-inspired white-guy pop. Sheeran is fine like a bland meal you didn’t pay for or a bath that was hot five minutes ago. And according to him in his new four-part Disney+ doc series, Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All, his meteoric success felt like it came all of a sudden from his perspective, as well: “Before I knew it, I’d played over 40 countries and sold 9 million tickets on the [2017-2019] Divide tour. And that became 63 million albums sold worldwide,” he recounts.

Full of hooks and allergic to offense, Sheeran is the kind of artist that mainstream pop was made for. The only thing strange about him—aside from his insistence in rapping regularly in his music—is that he didn’t happen sooner. Sum is anchored to his 2022 Mathematics tour and the February of that year that found him enduring a series of hardships, but the David Soutar-directed doc zips back and forth throughout his career, touching on his troubadour beginnings, his relationship with his wife Cherry, and his triumphing over a childhood stutter that is reported to have set in after doctors neglected to anesthetize him before one of several treatments he received to remove a birthmark next to his left eye as a child. We learn in the doc that what got him over the speech impediment was his recitation of Eminem’s lyrics.

The Sum of It All, when it isn’t showing us footage of Sheeran alongside fellow superstars like Beyoncé (singing “Perfect” with him onstage in South Africa) or his aforementioned childhood hero Eminem (doing “Stan” at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony in 2022) or recording at the famed Abbey Road Studios, is determined to paint Sheeran as not just an everyman but an underdog. “I’m specky, ginger hair, really short, like, English from the countryside, who stutters and beatboxes,” he says. “That guy doesn’t become a pop star.” Well, yes he does. Or at least this one did. (If this amazes you, Sum might be just the nonfiction viewing you need in your life.)

Sheeran’s ear and talent are so attuned to pop’s ethos that exploring his life in any depth seems like a pointless exercise. He just is. He just is pop. Granted, the guy’s work ethic is astonishing—it is alleged in the doc that he wrote seven songs in a few hours after learning of Cherry’s cancer diagnosis in February 2022. One of the most riveting scenes finds Sheeran building his 2021 smash “Bad Habits” from the ground up alongside producer Fred Again. I don’t even like that song but I loved watching its rapid evolution from wordless vocalizations to a coherent lament on the inescapable consequences of vice. At times Sheeran frames himself as in idealist who is in his industry for the simple joy that it brings. “‘Perfect’ is my favorite song I’ve ever written, and the feeling I got from writing ‘Perfect’ is worth way more than ‘Perfect’ [has] ever done commercially,” he claims.

But peek beyond the geyser of melodies and lyrics and you’ll see savvy and careerist inclinations. His upcoming album (Subtract) was conceived as “this, like, perfect acoustic album” and “the perfect singer-songwriter album.” That level of calculation is obviously behind a lot of pop music but is rarely so explicitly telegraphed by its creators. In an interview, he says that his response to a hypothetical person coming up to him and telling him they don’t like his new album is, “I don’t really care.” Later in an interview with his wife, he admits that, “I like my stuff, but my career is dictated by whether other people like my stuff… If I didn’t care what people think, I wouldn’t put it out. I would just make it.” While he does admit in the former interview that he has conflicting thoughts about the response to his work, and it’s somewhat refreshing to watch someone who’s unafraid to voice contradictory views on a complicated subject, the ultimate effect of the presentation here is someone who either doesn’t know what he wants or does but also feels obligated to refrain from coming off as unlikeable. Where Sum could use a thesis, we’re instead given Sheeran getting all mealymouthed about his art’s commercial prospects.

It is a rare moment of apparent candor when, in one scene, Sheeran reflects on his rise to fame by casting it as both unlikely and inevitable: “I didn’t really expect to get this big. Like, I bump into all the record company people that turned me down. And I can sense it. I can sense it in them. I don’t need to say it, and they don’t need to say it. But there’s just a [nods]. ‘Told you.’” And then after a beat: “You’re gonna put that in and I’m gonna look like a [cock?].” And then he laughs.

That the emotional high point of Sum comes from Ed Sheeran spitting passionate rhymes probably tells you everything you need to know about the intertwining of vanity and sincerity at hand.

The real tension in the doc comes from Sheeran’s no-good February 2022, during which Cherry was diagnosed with cancer, he was slapped with a copyright lawsuit, and his friend and collaborator Jamal Edwards died at 31. Edwards founded and ran the online platform SB.TV, which exposed Sheeran to the masses early on. Despite Cherry’s insistence that her husband never cries, we see Sheeran weeping after a memorial cookout held six months after Edwards’ death, as well as onstage. The grief doesn’t abate, though there is a cathartic focal point that comes from Sheeran delivering a 64-bar sing-song rap in tribute to his dead friend as part of a long-running SB.TV series. That the emotional high point of Sum comes from Ed Sheeran spitting passionate rhymes probably tells you everything you need to know about the intertwining of vanity and sincerity at hand.

During a Q&A with Gail King at the doc’s premiere on Tuesday, Sheeran said that Sum “isn’t a documentary on a musician. I feel like it’s a documentary on grief.” There’s something solipsistic about his insistence that a documentary on one musician’s grief is somehow bigger than just that, but that’s probably an inevitable product of mass adulation, and having everything you do seem to be bigger than just something a guy did. But that kind of what-I-do-really-matters entitlement is present in the filmmaking of The Sum of It All, a doc that does a lot of retrospective telling and not a ton of showing. There is no doubt that Sheeran is highly affected by his friend’s death, but there’s also little more to the story than just that: A guy who is sad that his friend died lives another day.

Sheeran remains unfailingly sincere and intelligible through The Sum of It All, as much a source of earworm melodies as white-bread wisdom: “Music’s always been therapy. It was a way to get my thoughts and feelings down as a kid. And it works. It really works.”; “Nothing matters other than health and time with people.”; “It’s scary putting out your deepest darkest thoughts to the world.” All of this on top of the piecemeal and scattered storytelling at hand make The Sum of It All far less than the sum of its parts.

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