Don’t be fooled by the title. While it’s true that “I Am Heath Ledger” is peppered with home video footage shot by its dearly departed namesake, this somewhat hagiographic documentary isn’t a first-person account, it’s not a direct address from beyond the grave. Brought to you by the same guy who has previously claimed to be Chris Farley, Bruce Lee, and a handful of other Hollywood legends who died at the height of their fame, director Derik Murray is no more Heath Ledger than he was any of those other iconoclasts, but — nauseatingly presumptuous title aside — the newest installment of his non-fiction franchise is a tender, worthwhile remembrance for an irrepressible star whose light continues to shine upon the people he left behind.
Co-directed by Adrian Buitenhuis, “I Am Heath Ledger” is far too loving a portrait to be confused for art — don’t expect another “Amy” — but the film’s superficial approach is buoyed by an overwhelming degree of sincerity. On one hand, there isn’t a negative word said about Ledger across these 90 minutes. On the other hand, the lucid, lingering awe with which the late actor’s friends and family remember him makes it remarkably easy to believe that they don’t have anything negative to say about him; that their grievances were as petty as their gratitude remains profound. This is a documentary with no agenda other than to assert that Heath Ledger was a remarkable human being, and to that end it makes a mighty convincing argument.
However sad you already were about his death, you’re about to get a whole lot sadder. However much you appreciated his work and marveled at his potential, you’re about to grow even more convinced that he was just scratching at the surface.
Bookended by mawkish Bon Iver music (a choice that is surprisingly well-justified in a last-minute twist!), the film unfolds like a feature-length video eulogy, less the sort of thing that should play in theaters than it is the sort of thing that should play on a loop at someone’s wake. “Some people are just bigger than the Earth has room for,” someone says at the top, and that sentiment simmers beneath everything that follows.
Beginning with Ledger’s parents and sisters, Murray and Buitenhuis have assembled a very strong collection of talking heads, who seem more than happy to remember their lost son or sibling. They recall a joyful, well-adjusted kid from Perth, who loved where he came from but longed to get a taste of the world beyond. Childhood pals (whom remained extremely close to Ledger until his death) recall the gung-ho spirit with which he leapt into the deep end, laughing about how his irrepressible energy and his roguish good looks made it so easy for him to be “discovered.” It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have looked at this guy and thought that he didn’t have it, and it doesn’t seem like anyone ever did.
A lot of the home video stuff that Ledger shot himself comes from those early years (keep an eye out for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from a young Rose Byrne), and all of it is pure gold — all of it cements the impression that he was a Tasmanian whirlwind of creative energy, always painting or taking pictures or just making funny faces at the camera when there was nothing else to look at. He liked to record himself spinning in circles, like a top that subsisted on nothing but its own momentum. The doc isn’t interested in slowing down and sinking into the crannies of Ledger’s life, but, to their great credit, Murray and Buitenhuis create a clear schism between the dreaminess of Ledger’s nature and the cold mundanity of the culture that he took by storm.
When the movie wants you to see things through its subject’s eyes, it always achieves the desired effect. Strong filters and other abstract stylizations help create a vivid headspace, and the unvarnished quality of the talking head interviews help ensure that they don’t break the spell.
Those talking head interviews, however, do expose the shallowness of the film’s inquiry. As fun as it is to have the likes of Ben Mendelsohn and Ang Lee show up to sing Ledger’s praises — and as touching as it is when Ben Harper plunks out the lullaby that he wrote for Ledger’s daughter — there’s a clear reluctance to probe beneath the most obvious of sentiments. Naomi Watts is a welcome presence, but there’s no mention of the fact that they dated. Michelle Williams, the mother of Ledger’s child, is mentioned only in passing. It goes without saying that her unwillingness to participate in a project like this is perfectly understandable, but Murray and Buitenhuis fail to compensate for such glaring omissions, structuring the movie around Ledger’s various creative endeavors rather than his personal relationships. The more the film goes on, the more it feels like his life is being reduced to his filmography.
Still, it’s nice to hear people demystify the overzealous fanboy myth that Ledger was driven insane by the process of playing the Joker. And there’s some truth to the idea that Ledger was largely defined by his work. The guy was restless in every sense of the word, his obsession with musician Nick Drake galvanized by their shared inability to turn off. “Heath was the most alive person,” one of his friends says, perhaps too alive to live for long. Or perhaps not. Ledger may have died young, but — if nothing else — this touching documentary tribute leaves no doubt that he’ll outlive us all in the end.
“I Am Heath Ledger” premiered in the Tribeca TV section of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It will screen in theaters on Wednesday, May 3rd, and will air on Spike TV on May 17.