'Hockney': London Review

Courtesy of London Film Festival
David Hockney in 'Hockney'
An officially sanctioned but pleasingly gush-free monograph

The life and work of British artist David Hockney is explored in depth in Randall Wright’s new documentary

The life and work of artist David Hockney is lovingly examined in Hockney, an officially sanctioned but pleasingly gush-free cinematic monograph. Directed by Randall Wright, who has form with older British artists having also made a doc about Lucian Freud and an earlier one for TV about Hockney (2003’s David Hockney: Secret Knowledge), Hockney benefits from unfettered access to the artist’s personal archive as well as extensive interviews with the still-productive 77-year-old himself. A limited release in the U.K. in November is planned, to be followed by broadcast on the BBC in 2015, but this could draw niche crowds in sophisticated urban areas offshore and perhaps attract interest from gay-themed festivals.

Either by accident or design, the film’s release will roughly coincide with the publication of Christopher Simon Sykes’ book David Hockney: The Biography, 1975-2012, the second part of Sykes’ definitive biography. Interest in the painter-photographer-printmaker-filmmaker has been particularly high in recent years, boosted by a number of exhibitions of his latest work at the Royal Academy in London, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and other venues. Meanwhile, the artist was also profiled in another BBC-funded 2009 doc, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, directed by Bruno Wollheim. Given the BBC holds rights to such a wealth of archive material, it makes perfect sense that they should continue to find outlets for it, especially when a subject is as engaging and popular as Hockney, who enjoys ad hoc “national treasure” status in the U.K.

Although this latest film begins with recollections from the Bradford-born man himself about his childhood and early years, supplemented with observations from some of his oldest friends (Arthur Lambert and Colin Self, among others), it’s not a strictly chronologically structured work and flits about thematically in a satisfying way. Gradually, a very Hockney-like collage is built up that illustrates the complex overlaps between biography, influence and technique, the last covered in the kind of detail that will please connoisseurs appreciative of Hockney’s phenomenal skill as a painter, draftsman and a designer.  

For less expert fans, the documentary offers a low-key, accessible guide to the man and his work, tracking him from his years at art school in an early 1960s London only just starting to swing, through his moves to first New York and then Los Angeles, the latter a locale with a quality of light so central to his best work from the 1970s.

Interviews with the subjects from his most famous portraits — including Don Bachardy, Celia Birtwell, Betty Freeman, couple George Lawson and Wayne Sleep, and art dealer John Kasmin — talk through their experiences sitting for Hockney with relaxed ease, offering variously gossipy and technical insights. Somewhere in the midsection, Wright delves into Hockney’s long, tempestuous relationship with his lover Peter Schlesinger, and that leads on naturally to a moving account of the impact of AIDS in the '80s, which so decimated Hockney’s circle of friends and acquaintances. Unsurprisingly, a significant amount of time is spent on Hockney’s most famous painting, the swimming pool-themed A Bigger Splash, but it’s informatively placed within the context of Hockney’s continuing fascination with water, surfaces, reflections and borders.

Editor Paul Binns (who also collaborated with Wright on Secret Knowledge) gracefully weaves the teeming wealth of material together so that the film as a whole has lovely natural flow. Nevertheless, the use of Nat King Cole’s song “L.O.V.E” not just once but three times throughout begins to grate, as do the cutaways to sans-serif–written quotes from artist that are oddly banal and pointless (“The urge to represent is very deep within us,” for example), given how articulate he proves elsewhere in the film. Aside from these quibbles, it’s pretty much an immaculate technical package.

Production companies: A BFI, BBC Arts in association with Screen Yorkshire, British Film Company, the Smithsonian Channel presentation of a Blakeway, Fly Film production
Cast: David Hockney, Arthur Lambert, Colin Self, Don Bachardy, Celia Birtwell, Betty Freeman, George Lawson, Wayne Sleep, John Kasmin
Director: Randall Wright
Producers: Kate Ogborn, Randall Wright
Executive producers: Denys Blakeway, Lisa Marie Russo, Lizzie Francke, Mark Bell, Hugo Heppell, Steve Milne, Christian Eisenbeiss, David Royle, Charles Poe
Director of photography: Patrick Duval
Editor: Paul Binns
Music: John Harle
Archive researcher: Tricia Power
Sales: Hanway FIlms

No MPAA rating, 108 minutes