Offering intimate insights into one of the world’s most successful male solo artists shares the motivations that drive him to continuously release relatable songs that go on to garner critical acclaim. Ed Sheeran, who’s publicly known for each of his albums reaching number one on the charts, is now sharing the love, loss and grief he’s privately contended with in his new Disney+ docuseries, Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All.
The four-part documentary was directed by music video and docuseries helmer, David Soutar (Jack Whitehall’s Sporting Nation, Ellie Goulding: River). Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All was executive produced by Ben Turner and Ben Winston, who work for British television, film and music production company, Fulwell 73.
The team at the company approached the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter-guitarist with the idea for the project. The idea for the docuseries arose after Sheeran first met Winston and Turner while he was writing songs for One Direction’s early albums.
In Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All, the titular global superstar opens the doors to a definitive and searingly honest view into his private life as he explores the universal themes that inspire his music for the first time ever. The documentary follows Sheeran after he learns of life changing news and reveals his hardships and triumphs during the most challenging period of his life.
The project features exclusive footage behind the musician’s iconic hits. The docuseries also includes never-before-seen personal archive with Sheeran and his friends and family, including his wife, Cherry Seaborn, and his epic stadium performances, which give insight into his world.
In each episode, Sheeran faces themes and emotions that most people experience. Along the way, he expresses his deeper thoughts as he reassesses life and explores what he thinks of the world, of himself and how this difficult time has influenced him and his new music.
Sheeran, Soutar, Turner and Winston generously took the time the night before Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All debuted on Disney+ to attend the project’s World Premiere at New York City’s The Times Center. The musician and filmmakers participated in a post-screening Q&A, which was moderated by Gayle King, to discuss the making of the documentary, which premiered two days before the release of his sixth album, Subtract.
Q: Ed, what was it like to be able to sit here and watch the docuseries with an audience?
ES: It was really different. I haven’t watched it a bunch of times, but I first saw it after these guys first put it together. They said they didn’t want to make a propaganda piece or me to be involved with the editing. They said, “We want to make a documentary from what we see.” So many artists who make a documentary kind of turn it into a promo package that they want you to see. But I trusted these guys, and said, “You make what you feel is right.”
So for me, it’s a really uncomfortable watch because there are so many things that I would cut out. I’d be like, “I don’t know about sharing this or that.” But I think that’s what makes it human and relatable. They found this thread through it that is uncomfortable and that we all go through and experience.
Q: I was instantly drawn in by the fact that you decided to start the docuseries with a home video of Ed when he was three-years-old. Who’s decision was that?
DS: That was Ben Turner.
Q: Ben, what was the decision-making in that?
BT: I think the starting point is to show what an unlikely journey this is. So to tell that, I felt we should go right to the beginning and show that cute little boy. That image allows you to connect with this story. Parents all have hopes that their children will succeed, so we all want to go on this journey with Ed.
Q: Ed, you’ve said that despite all of your professional accomplishments, life became instantly better when Cherry came into your life. I looked at this as a journey for both of you because it’s so personal. So how did you make the decision together to allow yourselves to be filmed this way, because we don’t normally see you on red carpets?
ES: To be completely honest, we actually didn’t reach the decision until about two months ago. I haven’t really told these guys that. (Audience laughs.) We did speak in the beginning because the documentary was originally meant to be about me. I spoke to Ben Winston and said, “This is actually what’s going on in my personal life, and I don’t really want to make a documentary about it.” He said, “Let’s just film it and see.”
So I spoke to Cherry and said, “We don’t have to do anything with it. We’ll just watch it.” So we watched it with my and her parents, which was super uncomfortable. As kids, you don’t usually tell your parents the whole story; you just say, “Everything’s all fine.” So it wasn’t until we watched it and had that reaction with Cherry and our parents. They said it’s beautifully done and it’s really important to tell this story, so at that point, we finally felt comfortable saying yes to sharing our personal lives. Until then, we were like, TBC.
We’ve been talking about doing it for awhile. We had some calls, and I sent them some footage of me making some tracks. I said, “Make a documentary about that.” To be honest, I don’t think these guys were too interested in that. They said, “Let’s actually see you as a human, since everyone knows you as an artist.”
Q: Ben Winston, when you said to Ed, “Let’s just film and see how it goes,” did you really mean that? Or did you know that you were going to get something special, since you know Ed?
BW: I remember exactly where I was; I was at my in-laws, and it was a weekend, and Ed was FaceTiming me. We already decided that we were going to make the documentary, but we were chatting about it throughout the summer. He was completely honest about what was going on with Cherry. He was also honest about Jamal (Edwards, a West London music entrepreneur/DJ who was Sheeran’s best friend and helped him launch his career), who had just recently passed away (in February 2022, while the docuseries was in production).
So I was honest with Ed about how there were two documentaries we could make. The documentary that was that fluff piece, which we’ve made before, as people want to sanitize their image. Then there was the other documentary that I thought was really interesting, which we made. I knew that as long as he was okay sharing it, there was no part of his personality that he would need to hide. He’s exactly who you see up there, and he’s as great as a person can be.
So I was stressing to him to trust the process and let us film it. If there was anything too personal, though, of course we took it out, as we wanted him to feel safe. But we also wanted him to take the risk with us during filming, and then work together afterwards on telling the story he felt most comfortable with. At the end, it was a really interesting process. Both Ed and Cherry were really comfortable showing us what they showed us. So there wasn’t a lot of footage that they told us to get rid of afterward. I think they find the documentary as therapeutic as we do.
ES: The key thing was that I never wanted to make a documentary about a sad pop star that makes the audience feel bad for me. What I think is great about the documentary is the themes it explores, and shows things that everyone goes through. Everyone goes through the fear of sickness in their family, as well as grief and the ups and downs of mental health.
Q: The documentary shows that you went through a lot of troubles.
ED: We all do.
Q: Yes. I think that’s what unites us. The fact that you share the loss of Jamal is relatable, as we all go through loss and can’t escape it. David, what was it like to film when Ed goes through something so emotional? How did you decide whether you should keep rolling?
DS: I think it’s instinct, and you have to take the lead from the people you’re filming with. I think we formed a strong relationship, so I got a sense of when to film and when not to. I think the time you spend with someone off camera is as important as the the time you spend on camera. It’s really hard.
I also think you also have to give a piece of yourself as a filmmaker. So we shared a lot of our stories to get to that place. I think it was incredibly tough to go through all of that. We had a small team while we were making this documentary, but the process was incredible. I feel very privileged to have been on the inside, especially with Cherry going through this process.
People make mistakes along the way, but I feel like we got to this place because we were open with each other. There were times when I did have to stop filming and give Ed a hug. You have to go against your instincts as a filmmaker and put the camera down because this person was bearing his soul to us.
Q: I really also liked the people around you who are shown in the documentary. It shows that you’re still friends with your friends from before you became famous says something about you.
ES: Thank you.
Q: The docuseries also shows how you’re dealing with grief over Jamal’s death, Ed. Have you had time to process it?
ES: I don’t think you ever process it, really. I think your life builds itself around grief. One thing I really liked about making this documentary is that more people are going to know Jamal now. I think it’s really important to share his stamp on history.
He’s a really prominent figure in British culture, but the rest of the world isn’t as familiar with him. But Disney’s such a far-reaching company that now countries all around the world are going to know Jamal, who would have never have dreamed that he would be on TV there. But overall, I don’t think grief is something you should get over. I think to respect the person you lost, you have to live with it and allow yourself to be sad sometimes. You also have to allow yourself to laugh at the fun times sometimes. But to erase someone from your memory so you don’t feel sad is disrespectful to that person. So I allow myself to feel sad when I want to feel sad.
Q: You don’t allow yourself to ever complain?
ES: I think it’s more human. I think that’s the thing with this documentary. When people watch it and see how I react to it, they’re not saying, “Oh, I’m said for Ed because he’s sad.”
They’re watching it and relating it to their own lives. They think, oh, I’ve lost someone. That’s why I think the documentary is so powerful. I’ve spoke about this a lot with Ben Winston; it’s not a documentary about a musician; I feel like it’s a documentary about grief.
Q: Yes, that’s a huge part of it. Ben Winston, I know you lost your mom, so what was it like working on this documentary while you were processing your grief. So was it difficult for you to continue working on the project?
BW: I’ll take for both Ben and me. Ben Turner and I have known each other, and been in business with each other, running companies together since I was about 19. Ben’s a lot older than me – he was about 24! (Audience laughs.) But the reason we’re friends is because our moms were best friends. They grew up together, and were friends since they were about three or four-years-old. So we therefore had no choice but to be friends. (Audience laughs.)
We both lost our moms recently. Ben lost his mom a couple of months after Jamal, and my mom was about a month before Jamal. I found it very difficult to deal with the grief and loss. So it seemed like it was meant to be that we made this documentary about grief while the two of us were really struggling with the grief of losing our moms, who we were so close to.
I’m not someone who usually discusses it, even though I’m discussing it now in front of you all. But what was lovely about the process of making the documentary was that Ed’s a poet and songwriter, so he can put feelings into his interviews so much better than I can. So when I hear him talk about when he lost Jamal, he no longer felt like a child, and now felt like an adult, I think, that’s what I’m feeling. I’m suddenly feeling like an adult.
Or when he talks about being at the graveyard, and suddenly his best friend is surrounded by random people, I think, that’s how I also feel about that. It’s such a weird place to go because my mom’s surrounded by people she doesn’t know.
So throughout it all, it was a beautiful thing for Ben and I. We talked about our moms a lot during this process, that we were suddenly making this documentary with Ed at exactly the same time that we were going through it. I think that’s why it became so much more than a piece of work for us. It became something so important and made us feel so less alone. We realized, oh yes, everyone goes through grief.
It’s okay to be isolated within your grief, but it’s also okay to share those thoughts because everyone’s feeling it at the same time. It was a therapeutic and helpful thing to make, and I hope it is therapeutic and helpful to watch, as well.
Q: In the documentary, you said, Ed, “I hope people like it, but if they don’t that’s okay.” You didn’t say it in an arrogant way. But can you talk about that because I thought, I understand that?
ES: I think people think that being a successful recording artist is an egotistical thing. As I explain in the documentary, if I just wanted to write songs for my own enjoyment, I’d write songs and not release them. But I love performing and touring around the world and connecting with people, as well as releasing albums. I hope these songs connect with people worldwide. The way to do that is to release it to as many people as possible.
But in that, you’re allowing it to be liked or disliked. In that, I’ve had successful songs and unsuccessful songs. But I feel like making this new album, Subtract, I haven’t made it for anything other than trying to process my own grief. For these guys, it was making the documentary, but for me, it was making this album. Recording the album was my own cathartic way of trying to make myself feel better.
I actually wasn’t intending to put this album out; I had a whole other album that I was planning on releasing. But I put it out to help with my grief, so I don’t really care how it does. I’m going to put it out, and it’s going to exist.
Q: Ed, in the documentary, you described yourself as a ginger-haired kid who stutters. Ben Turner, how does that kind of person become a pop star who’s beloved around the world?
BT: He has tenacity and unbelievable songs. He’s the soundtrack to all of our lives. There isn’t a moment in your life where an Ed Sheeran song can’t accompany it. He’s just this unbelievable talent who also has the most unbelievable work ethic out of anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s just ambition and unbelievable talent, and he shows that good guys do win.
Q: Ed, you said in the documentary that you always knew that you would work harder than anyone else. When you saw other musicians perform one concert a week, you said you would do three a day. You wanted it that badly, did you not?
ES: My dad always said, “The people who work hard get the farthest, even if they’re not the most talented people.” I had very limited talent as a kid, but I knew the one thing I could do is outwork everyone else. So I’d be doing shows with people who were 10 times better than me – they had better voices and were better guitar players and performers. But I knew I could get up to that level by outworking them.
It’s what I say to kids all the time. I tell them, “You don’t have to be the best singer, songwriter or performer. But if you work harder than other people, you can reach the top.” People think I was born with natural talent. But you can go on YouTube and find videos of me when I was 13 or 14 and was performing, and they’re really bad. (Audience laughs.)
BW: That work ethic was amazing for us to experience. We have made documentaries with people who very much consider that they’re doing us a favor, and don’t get that it’s their face on the package.
But Ed embraced that side of the project and said to us, “I’m going to tell my story.” He was very committed to doing that, so we experienced his work ethic. He was true to his word about not being too picky about what he included in the documentary.
There was a moment when we were on the phone with him, and he said, “I’ve shown the documentary to one of my friends,” which is normally the kiss of death. We said, “Ed, you can’t keep showing it to all of your friends,” because then we have to deal with not only what he’s thinking, but what his friends are also thinking. But then he said, “He has some experience in making documentaries.” We asked, “Okay, who is it?” He said, “Peter Jackson.” (Audience claps and laughs.)
Q: I might listen to Peter Jackson!
EW: Oh, we did!
Q: David, was there ever a time when Ed said, “I don’t want you to use that,” or did you all have huddle before you started shooting about how it was going to go? Did you have trouble getting him to open up?
DS: It was a long process. The thing that we were grateful to Ed and Cherry for was that it takes a real bravery to open up and show your story in the way they have done. I think the series is what it is because of their bravery. Going back to your question, it was a long process. There was a moment when we sat with Ed and Cherry and had an honest and open chat. We said, “This is where we want to go with things. How are you?” We were all completely honest.
It was the start of the complete honesty we had, and things went from there. We were grateful for that. We got to that point of complete honesty pretty quickly, and the whole way through, we carried that on. To the other part of your question, there really wasn’t anything that they asked us to not film. Like Ed mentioned, they trusted us, which was incredible. They just handed that over to us and said, here’s our story.
ES: I have known these guys since the start of my career, so it didn’t feel as though strangers were coming in.
Q: Are you worried about the masses seeing the documentary?
ES: Yes, it’s something I spoke a lot about with Cherry. This is our life; it’s not something that’s scripted. But it’s something that we’ve kept private for a very long time, and rightly so. We’re a couple, and not celebrities who always want to be out there on the red carpet.
What I’m hoping is that this documentary goes out there and it exists for what it should exists for, which is a snapshot of grief, mental health and depression, and we can close the door and get on with our lives.
All four episodes of Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All is now streaming on Disney+.