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A privileged look at an actor whose life begs poetic cliches about brightly burning flames, Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis‘ I Am Heath Ledger offers intimacy but little sense of discovery. Arriving nearly a decade after Ledger’s death, it is too late to voice fans’ sorrow and too early (not to mention wholly disinclined) to try assessing the place this short career has in film history. Produced for Spike TV, its format is appropriate for casual cable viewing, though it will attract some attention at fests for its wealth of video material Ledger shot for his own private use.
Some of that footage captures what amounts to DIY acting exercises for the self-taught thesp. Holding a video camera selfie-style, Ledger sneaks through a hotel’s corridors like the protagonist of a thriller; he practices facial expressions for later evaluation; he records his first-day-of-school emotions on the set of The Patriot. As Ang Lee will explain, Ledger knew how to look at himself on a monitor without letting self-consciousness creep into his performance afterward.
But the doc is less interested in analyzing Ledger’s acting technique than in impressing viewers with his overall creative drive. Those cameras he always carried weren’t just tools for self-documentation — Ledger wanted to make art with them, and was nurturing a film and music production company when he died. Buitenhuis and Murray offer several behind-the-scenes clips from music videos he directed, and the singers in them testify here to his obsession with creativity. No one is more effusive in this department than musician Ben Harper, a friend who clearly remains thunderstruck by the actor’s death. He “was the most alive” person on the planet, Harper says, claiming to feel that this world, in which friends discuss his loss, is an alternate reality Harper isn’t supposed to have to live in.
Relying on interviews with family and close friends (as Murray has in other I Am — films devoted to Chris Farley and Evel Knievel), especially those who knew him before fame in Australia, the picture follows a rough chronology of Ledger’s life but isn’t too finicky about its storytelling. After telling us about his childhood confidence that he would be a movie star, it leaps straight to his casting as the lead on Fox’s TV series Roar without giving any indication how he got to that point. In describing the Entourage-like vibe at his house between The Patriot and his breakthrough in A Knight’s Tale, it draws on the memories of Naomi Watts, who wouldn’t meet him until two or three years later. (And it assumes we know the two became a couple, something that isn’t discussed here.)
Somewhat more solid is the sense of Ledger’s growing confidence and ambition. Troubled at first by the spotlight he so actively sought, he found some comfort with it as he landed more meaty film roles. But his creative restlessness (and whatever other personal difficulties the film avoids) led to literal sleeplessness. Loved ones speak gingerly about his dependence on sleeping pills, all taking pains to say he “was in the best place” by the time of his death — very proud of his performance as the Joker and rapturous about fatherhood. (Michelle Williams, the mother of his daughter, is one of several Ledger intimates who unsurprisingly did not participate in the doc.) He was preparing to direct his first feature film, based on the novel The Queen’s Gambit, when he overdosed in New York. Twenty-eight years old, Ledger narrowly escaped joining that romanticized fraternity of artists who died at 27. But that won’t keep loved ones, fans, and scholars from obsessing over what he would have done in the decades he should’ve had left on Earth.
Production company: Network Entertainment
Distributor: Spike TV
Directors: Adrian Buitenhuis, Derik Murray
Screenwriter: Hart Snider
Producer: Derik Murray
Executive producers: Matt Amato, Tim Gamble, Paul Gertz, Kevin Kay, Jaime Kosanke, Steve Kotlowitz, Sandra Lim, Robert Pirooz, Peter Scarth, Jon Slusser, Gemma Strongman, Kent Wingerak, Greg Zeschuk
Director of photography: Shaun Lawless
Editors: J.R. Mackie, Hart Snider
Composer: David Ramos
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Tribeca TV)
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