"He was the most alive human, and if it wasn't on the edge it didn't interest him."
The passing of Heath Ledger was probably one of the greatest losses to the craft of acting in recent years. The sheer potential Ledger has just tapped into with his awe-inspiring performance in ‘The Dark Knight’ was astonishing, coming off the back of other impressive turns in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘I’m Not There’. Instead of decade upon decade of terrific performances we and everyone that knew him were robbed of his remarkable talent as well as him as a person. Close to a decade after that we get ‘I Am Heath Ledger’ as a celebration of his life work.
With contributions from Naomi Watts, Ben Medelsohn and Ang Lee, this documentary takes an intimate look back upon the art and life of actor Heath Ledger.
A good question to ask for documentaries, especially ones of this nature, is “would this be better as a narrative feature?” If the answer is “no” then it’s a good sign that the movie is an affecting piece of cinema and that is the case for ‘I Am Heath Ledger’. This documentary weaves in home videos of Ledger as well as media reports and modern interviews that inject such an intimate and personal sense of meaning to proceedings. It allows us to get an up-close look at the actor and experience the affection and personality others are describing. It’s hardly a revolutionary technique and one that has been executed better elsewhere but it serves the narrative here very well. If you want to see it done to perfection then check out both of Asif Kapadia’s recent documentaries ‘Senna’ and ‘Amy’.
Actually, speaking of those two particular documentaries I do have to remark upon a flaw with ‘I Am Heath Ledger’ in that regard. I find that the best documentaries dissect their subject rather than just celebrate them, and while Ledger himself is certainly worthy of being celebrated one has to ask if the documentary should have tried harder to uncover more about him and dig beneath the surface. It’s not an approach I object to but it’s one that has its limitations. I already knew what this film had to tell me about its subject whereas those I mentioned earlier by Kapadia added a whole new dimension to their subjects.
That being said, I try to judge a film on what it is, not what I think it should be and as a celebration of Ledger’s life and work this documentary excels. The sheer amount of people praising him is meaningful enough, but to see the interviews in full where we can feel the genuine empathy and meaningfulness to what each guest is saying makes it all the more impactful. They range from reminiscent to somewhat mournful as one does when remembering a departed friend/loved one, though I must say there are some notable absentees. Could they not at the very least pull some archive footage of Christopher Nolan or Terry Gilliam discussing Ledger given that they each directed his final two performances?
In fairness though the movie never claims to be a subjective view of its subject. That is obvious both from the way it handles the interviews about Ledger as well as the fact that it foregoes any formal interview of the actor during his lifetime in favour of recovered home videos. It further adds to the personal feel the documentary possesses. It’s heartfelt, tender and to someone like me who continues to admire Ledger’s work as an actor, doesn’t take long to resonate on an emotional level. We also get insight from professionals within the industry who further emphasise the remarkable nature of the actor’s career. As Mendelsohn remarks at one point, Ledger had established himself as a movie heartthrob only to turn around and star in a prestige picture about gay cowboys, in 2005. Granted it does not seem an age ago but ‘Brokeback Mountain’ remains a bigger touchstone and risk taker than many people give it credit for, and it’s not something every actor would undertake other than those willing to push themselves and their craft.
In terms of how it is structured the movie does a superb job of weaving its many sources together. Obviously it has no straightforward narrative but everything within it intently revolves around the man himself and all feels tightly focussed and constructed. It’s a humane portrait but one that never escapes the grasp of its makers. But as easy as it would be to just recount Ledger’s filmography the movie goes one step further as it never fails to infuse a sense of humanity into proceedings. It’s not about Heath Ledger the movie star, it is about Heath Ledger the actor who strove to improve his craft, and was admired by so many.
Intimate and personal in the best of ways, ‘I Am Heath Ledger’ does not dissect its subject but it is a fine celebration of him.