Even though he created some of the most daring, original, honest, and sometimes downright hilarious films of the last two-and-a-half decades, Richard Linklater might be the most underrated director in contemporary American cinema. Every die-hard cinephile, and even a good percentage of casual movie watchers, have their favorite Linklater masterpiece they hold close to their hearts with a profoundly personal attachment, a film they’ll go out of their way to recommend to friends and family. Fans even talk up his successful mainstream work, like the infectiously adorable “School of Rock,” as if they are their own personal discoveries. And yet, that film was far from obscure art-house fare. It was a massive mainstream hit that grossed $131 million dollars worldwide, and even has a TV spinoff in the works. Yet it contained such heartwarming honesty and genuine compassion for its characters, fans still took it upon themselves to champion what was technically a major studio release.
So how come Linklater’s not a name that’s as immediately recognized and celebrated as a grand auteur like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson? Perhaps the issue is that he’s so versatile, always ready to embark on a different style and genre instead of pigeonholing himself into an instantly recognizable box so a lot of his fans don’t even realize he directed many of their favorite films, and therefore don’t even know they’re fans of his in the first place. Linklater’s movies—which have ranged from the lo-fi “Tape” to the ambitious “Waking Life” and beyond—aren’t connected by common themes or visual cues like some of his contemporaries.
The inherent need to celebrate Linklater’s impressive career, while acknowledging that all of these brilliant and brilliantly diverse modern classics were indeed the brainchildren of one Texan genius, is what makes the Linklater retrospective documentary “21 Years” so important. Make no mistake, writing and directing duo Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood’s film is a feature-length love letter to Linklater, so if for some reason you’re highly critical of his body of work, you won’t find much here to support your thesis.
In a purely technical sense, “21 Years” is a typical career retrospective documentary that strictly intercuts between talking heads, in this case a number of Linklater collaborators and admirers, including Ethan Hawke, Matthew McConaughey, Julie Delpy, Jack Black, and more, along with clips from his impressive filmography. Occasionally, appropriately lighthearted and quirky cartoons are spliced in to add visual spice to some of the interviewees’ personal Linklater anecdotes. These animated segments are what elevate “21 Years” from a roided-up Blu-ray extra to a legitimate feature documentary.
Dunaway and Wood manage to extract cozy and candid interviews from their subjects, who all seem to genuinely like being friends with or working for Linklater. A lot of their stories confirm Linklater’s own brand of cinematic bravery as he adopts a different approach and style to each project. For example, Steven Chester Prince was delighted with the improvisational freedom he was given while developing his role of Ted in “The 12 Year Project” (eventually titled “Boyhood”), only to be taken aback when Linklater insisted he stick to the script while he was directing Prince’s small role as a cop in “A Scanner Darkly.”
During the doc, Linklater’s features are examined separately. In order to avoid an episodic structure, Dunaway and Wood decide to bundle thematically similar films under separate sections. Some of these bundles make perfect sense, like the “Before Trilogy” being discussed as one massive project. Some of them are head-scratchers, like “Bad News Bears” and “A Scanner Darkly” ending up as a bizarre couple. There’s also an attempt at the very last minute to explore Linklater’s Austin roots and his influence on the creation of SXSW as well as The Austin Film Society. Unfortunately, not enough screen time is devoted to this subject as the sequence ends up as an orphan finale.
In a perfect world, “21 Years” can end up as a terrific special feature on a DVD release for any one of his movies. However, as a stand-alone doc, it’s not worthy of a trip to the theater, but should be more than satisfactory for hardcore Linklater fans and is essential viewing for newcomers. [B-]