Director: Adrian Buitenhuis, Derik Murray
Writer: Hart Snider
Starring: Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Ang Lee, Ben Mendelsohn
Genre: Documentary – biography
Rating: Not Rated
Even before The Dark Knight was screened in cinemas, news spread of Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal of the iconic villain, the Joker. From heart-throb to respected character actor, and now with rumors of an Oscar win, Heath Ledger’s career had nowhere to go but up. Yet as we all know, his life was tragically cut short at the young age of twenty-eight. The toxicology report showed a lethal combination of prescription drugs–an answer that was simultaneously shocking, baffling and unbelievable, leaving only more questions.
Nine years after his death, documentary filmmakers, Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray, have pieced together footage shot by the late actor himself, along with interviews from those who knew him best. The result is I Am Heath Ledger, a movie that celebrates Heath Ledger’s short yet incredible life. Kate Ledger, Heath’s sister–who appears in the film–reported that it was a cathartic experience to take part in this process. “I think I screamed and cried through the whole first viewing,” she revealed to Channel Ten’s The Project, an Australian light news program. Though she later commented that while it has been hard, the idea of the next generation learning about and enjoying her brother’s works has healed some of the pain.
None of the footage for I Am Heath Ledger was provided by the family, with Kate commenting that she was surprised to see what content popped up on the big screen. This has left many critics wondering just where the film will stand in regards to its tone, whether it will remain respectful for friends or family, or if it will satisfy the fans’ curiosity concerning his life and death–those that are willing to ask more of the harder questions.
Violence/Scary Images: While I Am Heath Ledger does reference and show clips from Ledger’s filmography, the scenes chosen aren’t particularly violent. The Joker from The Dark Knight is shown, giving the “Want to know how I got these scars?” monologue, while holding a knife inside someone’s mouth. Heath Ledger also directed some music videos during his life, and there’s some uncomfortable imagery in two of them. He experimented a lot with extreme close ups, and in one of the songs the singer is covered in face paint, the combination of which might be unsettling for some, though for the most part it’s rather tame.
Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped, which is the worst word that is uttered, though any swearing is few and far between during the course of the film. While this movie has not been submitted for rating in the United States, in Australia it is listed as M, which would be the equivalent of PG-13. The only reason provided for that rating is “coarse language.” Though as mentioned, foul language certainly isn’t a prominent feature in the movie.
Spiritual Content: Any ties to Christian theology are not directly stated, though there are a number of classic concepts and themes explored throughout the movie that encroach a spiritual tone, such as destiny, man’s mortality, and the idea that the world isn’t meant to be this way. Questioning the untimeliness of Heath’s demise, one friend says “there is something that is universally out of alignment with what happened”. A number of people in this film struggle to find meaning in Heath’s death, though many have accepted that it’s simply a tragedy; try as one may, there is no answer that can satisfy.
Sexual Content: None, although the scene shown from Brokeback Mountain is where Heath Ledger romantically kisses Jake Gyllenhaal.
Drug/Alcohol References: Heath Ledger was a smoker and did consume alcohol socially. As his house was a popular place for fellow artists to gather, there are numerous shots where tables are strewn with empty beer bottles. His consumption of prescription drugs is mentioned though not shown.
Other Negative Content: Since I Am Heath Ledger is a eulogy of sorts, it actually avoids any semblance of negativity.
Positive Content: As mentioned above, this film really is a celebration of a person’s life, one that was loved and adored by many. It marvels at Heath Ledger’s incredible pursuit of creativity and ceaseless energy, focusing heavily on his acts of kindness towards others.
Whether it is intended or not, I Am Heath Ledger is a film predominantly about grieving. It doesn’t take long to see from those being interviewed that Heath Ledger has left a void in these people’s lives, one that will never be filled again. It’s only natural that an air of sentimentality pervades this film, however, it does raise the question as to who exactly is the audience? In many ways, this documentary tries to please everyone, from the family, to the friends and fans, though as the old saying goes, by not holding firm to a particular market, it pleases no-one.
Yet it’s hard to criticize Buitenhuis and Murray’s direction as they had a delicate pathway to walk. During the course of the film, we hear from both of Heath Ledger’s parents and (I assume) all of his sisters. At one point in the movie a family member mentions how devastating it was to not only lose Heath, but also the additional challenge of not having any privacy during their time of grief. They need to be commended for having the courage to appear in this documentary, allowing themselves to be vulnerable by once again talking about one of the most gut-wrenching moments of their lives, in order to provide the rest of the world some semblance of peace, though it is questionable as to whether it is anyone else’s business.
So it would be incredibly disrespectful to the family for the directors to have taken on a more hard-hitting journalistic approach towards Heath Ledger’s life. Though if they’re not willing to ask the hard questions –to take a critical eye and answer some of the issues fans have been pondering about for years–then once again, one has to ask what is the purpose of this documentary?
The answer may be revealed in one family member’s comment on how they were glad Heath Ledger became an actor, as he has, in a way, been immortalized on film, therefore allowing his daughter, Matilda, the opportunity to get to know her father. So I Am Heath Ledger is essentially a wonderful, positive summary of Heath Ledger’s life, one that Matilda will one day be able to view and feel a sense of pride in all that her father managed to accomplish. It may not be the gritty film that fans didn’t know they wanted until now, but I think we can all sacrifice our morbid curiosity for the family’s sake. Besides, it’s poor form to speak ill of the dead.
A lot of hard work has gone into constructing this documentary. Presented in chronological order, interviews are mixed with some of Heath Ledger’s home videos, along with a spattering of some of the works he personally directed, as well as a few audio clips of his thoughts on certain subjects. I Am Heath Ledger certainly provides a more personalized perspective of the man. There are some surprises.
The film delves quite deeply into Heath’s disdain for fame and his willingness to share it with others. It’s amazing to hear from numerous voices as to how Heath helped them along in life, particularly with how he provided accommodation for Australians who wanted to make it big in Hollywood. He was a culture unto himself. Heath’s passion for music and chess are also prominently featured. Yet the silence from numerous film directors (apart from Ang Lee) and Michelle Williams is deafening. For reasons we can only guess, they aren’t seen within the movie to detail their experiences with the late actor.
The structure of the documentary is also unfulfilling in some aspects. Within the first five minutes, Heath is moving to Hollywood to begin his career as an actor. Very little is said about his early years, which is disappointing considering the family were available to interview. Thankfully this incredibly quick pace does slow once the documentary begins to seemingly go through Heath’s filmography, though when it detours to display the music videos, it does unfortunately start to drag. It is at this point when the footage begins to feel oddly self-indulgent. This documentary does provide the perfect platform to sample Heath’s creative experimentation with the camera, so it’s easy to see why it’s included. However since audiences have already witnessed a lot of footage (some of which is incredibly poor in quality) produced by Heath Ledger in some way or another up till that point, at the hour mark the novelty begins to wear off.
As Heath Ledger was predominantly known for his acting, fans might be disappointed that there isn’t more time devoted to that aspect of his life. Film critics may also feel cheated, given that the documentary’s deviation towards his music videos may have come at the cost of not getting any insight into Heath’s involvement with the critically acclaimed Australian film, Candy. That said, the music is good, though as a whole the documentary features a complete mishmash of musical styles, thanks to being mostly diegetic.
Fellow actors might be pleased to learn a little bit about Heath Ledger’s unorthodox approach to his movie roles. Though once again the documentary doesn’t delve too deeply or into the nitty gritty, leaving more of an impression of Ledger’s techniques as opposed to a direct answer. Then again, the questions actors might be asking can only be properly answered in one way, and unfortunately Heath Ledger is no longer with us to pass on his knowledge.
That’s essentially the core issue with I Am Heath Ledger. It is one big hypothesis. Many voices come together to try and shed light or otherwise encapsulate his soul, though it’s a task that sadly cannot be done. Such is the very nature of death. I Am Heath Ledger will always be dissatisfying in one aspect or another as it simply can’t wholly depict everything there is of this fellow human being. If you can’t tell already, the documentary focuses mostly on his life and not on his death (and rightfully so), though when the proverbial elephant does abruptly stampede into the room, it’s barely given a mention. While it might be out of respect that the finer details about his death aren’t discussed, what I Am Heath Ledger does do well is provide some much-wanted context, along with some wise words from those closest to him about the empty rabbit hole that comes with the desire of needing to rationalize the unfathomable.
I Am Heath Ledger has enjoyed a brief stint in cinemas, though due to the low quality of some of the footage, it may benefit from a smaller screen. Answering our wishes, I Am Heath Ledger will premiere on Spike on May 17. It will also air on The Movie Network come May 22, while digital copies and DVDs can be purchased off iTunes from May 23.
+ Respectful + Sentimental + Details Ledger's other passions and accomplishments
- Avoids the hard questions - Strays too far into sentimentality at times
The Bottom Line
It's a competent documentary that tries its best to faithfully depict the life of an extraordinarily talented man, though it tip-toes around the harder issues, and may not delve into Heath Ledger's acting world as much as fans would hope.