When was the last time you thought to yourself, “gee, I can’t wait for a Spike TV documentary?” It’s not that Spike isn’t good at… erm, what they do for their audience—cable channel programming for male adults—but let’s face it, their reality TV and sports programming (shows by Adam Carolla, Dave Navarro’s tattoo show and “Lip Sync Battle”), doesn’t actually scream captivating documentaries that make their debut at reasonably prestigious festivals like the Tribeca Film Festival.
An outlier in their programming and tone, the new documentary “I Am Heath Ledger” about the late, great Australian actor, perhaps points to a new and mature direction for the channel. Or perhaps it’s an aberration, but either way, this intimate and soulful documentary directed by Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray, should lend the channel some newfound credibility; it’s that surprisingly good, even as it mostly sticks to a familiar format of talking heads testimonials, excerpts of great performances. And it feels deeply personal despite being made by two strangers. But its defining characteristic is Ledger’s own curious and hungry perspective of the world—the doc features a treasure trove of pre-existing footage shot by Ledger himself that is cut together in an incredibly effective and emotionally stirring fashion.
“I shouldn’t be here. This shouldn’t be happening,” musician Ben Harper intones solemnly at the beginning the doc. This conversation shouldn’t be taking place, he says. Heath Ledger should still be alive, thriving and thrilling the world with his art. Documentaries about the dearly departed and the exceptionally gifted are often devotional even worshipping, and while clearly adoring, “I Am Heath Ledger,” not only strikes the perfect balance of affection and truthful storytelling, but makes an extremely convincing argument for the case that Ledger was a true artist beyond what you already know, who should have been destined for all-time greatness. Passing away all too early at 28, the moving memorial can only compellingly point to what might have been, but still, cements the actor’s status as an icon.
Starting with the early days of Australia, to his pilgrimage to America, his breakthrough, his rise to Hollywood fame and his tragic death, “I Am Heath Ledger,” hits all the expected beats of the “Brokeback Mountain” actor’s life, but does so with such absorbing care, the familiar still feels authentic.
Featuring interviews and testimonials by friends and colleagues like Naomi Watts, Ben Mendelsohn, Ang Lee, Emile Hirsch, Catherine Hardwicke, plus all his childhood best mates, many of whom stayed with him on his journey to America, Ledger’s commitment to his art, his acting and his lust for life emerges as the dominant theme. Many of them of course, were bowled away by not only his prodigious talents, but his driven quest for excellence and generosity of spirit.
Even if the film doesn’t offer much in the way of great discovery, the major take away from the doc is the picture of Ledger as an uber-creative artist above all else–Ledger practically co-directed the film himself. An avid documentarian of his own life, Ledger was constantly filming himself, his friends, his partners and his exploits. Not as a narcissistic endeavor, but as one who is trying to relentlessly capture life. To this end, Ledger was an unremitting, perhaps even annoying photographer, always seen with a camera in hand and always chronicling the world around him. Taking this to its logical conclusion as Ledger directed music videos for friends like Ben Harper, it’s clear Ledger would eventually have moved into the world of feature-length filmmaking. The documentation and photography in many ways acted as a training ground for understanding the power of the camera and the fundamentals of filmmaking. Ledger was curious, constantly soaking up the possibilities of visual creativity like a sponge.
The second, ultimately more ominous deduction was Ledger’s restless creativity, something of a curse as it led to a major issue with sleep that obviously gave way to his untimely death in 2008 from an accidental overdose of sleeping medication.
We all know the trajectory of Ledger’s artistic life, after “Brokeback Mountain” and his phenomenal turn in “The Dark Knight,” it seemed the young thespian was poised for a greatness we hadn’t yet witnessed. But Buitenhuis and Murray’s movie presents much emotional context to this journey. It’s a recognizable narrative, but it’s reinforced and made affecting by the shape of their well-constructed film.
“I Am Heath Ledger” leans into Ledger’s artistry and away from any celebrity trappings. And while the utter lack of sensationalistic drama sometimes makes the documentary feel like a purposeful course correction against the tide of past unfounded rumors, its viewpoint feels like a genuine portrait of who Heath Ledger truly was.
Leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the movie is, of course, the absence of Michelle Williams. While the actress did sign off on the movie, she obviously decided not to participate and perhaps respectful of her privacy, the film shies away from centering too much on their relationship and their daughter Matilda.
Before veering too deeply into his death, “I Am Heath Ledger,” moves towards a summary graph that while wrapping things up quickly, still lands persuasively. While bittersweet in its conclusion, the composed and solemn film avoids both hagiography and morose moments, never wallowing or lionizing its subject. Ultimately, this rueful picture of Heath Ledger is a loving celebration of a passionate spirit and a tribute fittingly seen through the eyes of the artist himself. [B+]
Photo credit: (C) Karin Catt