Amy, Kurt, and Heath: Artistic Integrity and Respect for the Dead in Biography Documentaries
With the past year having been one of the most tragic for beloved celebrity deaths, the subgenre of biopic documentaries is only going to grow stronger. While the genre title is rather self-explanatory, there are definite nuances in what this kind of film does. If there is a particularly prolific artist with enough content to do a whole film, like Brian DePalma with the doc DePalma (2015), then they may get one of these before they die. There is the “stranger than fiction” kind of biodoc that focuses on a person or group of people whose lives mirror those in a fictional film. Recent movies the Wolfpack (2015), Weiner (2016), and docuseries The Jinx (2015) show the continued interest in eccentric, sometimes duplicitous, subjects. Then, there is the film that combines the two. The “too young to die” subsect focuses on an artist who, in their short time on earth, left behind meaningful work, a reputation, or some combination of the two. The stories of these mysterious icons and the rumors surrounding their deaths have intrigued many for years. The documentaries made about these people often go one of two ways: either the film takes an honest look at the life of that person, showing them as the flawed human being that they were; or, it acts as a pure homage to the idealized person their friends and family want to remember them as. Whichever way it goes often relates to the public’s perception of them, as they either have high expectations to meet or low ones to defy. This article will look at three recent documentaries made about beloved artists and the ways in which their public persona either helps or hinders the making of an artistically meaningful film.
“The 27 Club”
The even smaller group of celebrities to have documentaries made about them come from the infamous “27 club.” Usually dying from drugs, suicide, or some tragic combination of the two, the mystery surrounding their deaths only heightens their fame. Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse are two of the saddest cases from this “club.” Both have had recent documentaries made about their lives and their legacies. Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015) and Amy (2015) were both honest looks the lives of these emotionally tormented people. The loss of Heath Ledger came as a shock to everyone and although he doesn’t quite fit into this group, his mysterious death sparked controversy and debate that the new documentary I Am Heath Ledger (2017) aimed to put to bed once and for all.
The big difference between these three celebrities is how the public saw them while they were alive. For Kurt, his fame was short-lived and burned very bright for that short time. Nirvana’s popularity took a toll on him and the fame became too much. What we didn’t quite see was just how much he loved his wife Courtney and daughter Frances.
Before her death, Amy had won a Grammy, had a few hit records and made a real name for herself. Her talent was indisputable, making her story all the more tragic. Her health was in the news often and she was maligned and made fun of for her “sloppy” public persona. As a woman in the public eye, she had to deal with twice as much scrutiny over her appearance, her love life, and her substance abuse.
Heath, on the other hand was defined by his work and, for the most part, managed to keep his private life private. It is always easy for people to idealize someone they know much less about. He rose up in the business, did some truly great work, and when he died, received a posthumous Oscar win for his role in The Dark Knight (2008). While his death was mysterious in the way Cobain’s was, Ledger comes off rather squeaky clean when put up against the other two.
The undisputed top of these three films is Amy. Not only did it win the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2016, but it was almost universally loved by critics and audiences alike. Although it verges on exploitative at times, this biodoc is an honest look at a fragile woman with an amazing talent that is bound to elicit tears from even the most stoic of viewers. Because her time on earth was characterized by rumors, the evil men in her life, and other negatives, the bar was low. This documentary tells her story in its entirety, providing a nuanced look at a great talent taken too soon.
Because of Cobain’s legend status, Montage of Heck was one of many attempts to capture his life on screen. Even director Gus Van Sant took a stab at a Kurt Cobain doc with Last Days (2005). As the first authorized documentary about the icon, there was a lot to live up to. Director Brett Morgan’s goal was to honor Kurt and give Frances, who served as an executive producer on the film, something to be proud of. With full rights to Nirvana’s music, Morgan was well-equipped to make one of the best rock docs of all time. The documentary brings together home videos, personal journals, and footage that that show the magnitude of both Cobain’s talent and his pain. As someone who struggled publicly with fame, Cobain, like Winehouse, was not seen as an angel. But unlike Amy, whose death in 2011 is much fresher in the public’s mind, Kurt has posthumously become a messiah figure in the resurgence of grunge.
The newest doc to hit theaters, and most critically shrugged off, is I Am Heath Ledger. Mostly due to his posthumous Oscar win, his daughter whom he obviously loved dearly, and his plethora of beloved performances, Ledger truly had nothing that could be used against him. Even his death, which was surrounded by rumors and questions, was widely considered a method actor diving too deep into a part. The documentary’s one firm stance comes down against this notion by stating pneumonia and exhaustion as the cause of death, putting to rest the exaggerated chatter about the emotional wreckage caused by playing the Joker. Ledger was clearly loved by his family, friends, and audiences. Because of this, there was little to no room for a deeper dive into his faults, vices, and the other things that make someone human. and when they were discussed, they were always the “his greatest strength was also his greatest weakness” musings. What should be a heartbreaking portrait of a beautiful soul taken too soon, comes off as an overly glorified homage to a seemingly unrelatable figure.
What heightens a documentary with good subject matter to something truly great is their undeniable point of view and their goal with the story. The biopic documentaries that aim only to honor the deceased often fall flat when it comes to creating art. When a celebrity subject seems to have no faults, at least that were visible to the public, the film comes off as an indulgent show that adds nothing to the cinematic universe. The true sweet spot of the biodoc subgenre comes from the stories of people who had public controversies, weren’t perfect, and had people who loved and hated them with equal force. When there is room to play off the public’s perception, there is room to make something of worth. It can be nearly impossible to not idealize the dead. And in truth, there is nothing wrong with that. The issue comes when a filmmaker is too close to the subject matter, is resistant to offending anyone, or lets their own love of the artist get in the way. In the future, when a filmmaker wants to dive deep into the life of an artist they love, it might be a benefit to pass on the piece to someone they trust to do a good, objective job, rather than crafting a shallow love letter to the deceased.