Review: I Am Heath Ledger (2017)

This tribute is many expected things: funny, insightful, endearing, bittersweet. For fans of Heath Ledger, it’s a little glimpse into his world, and truthfully, we don’t get too deep into it. But that privacy is intriguing to process in light of this documentary and has a fascinating resonance to Ledger’s legacy as an actor. Spoilers ahead.

I’m not sure how much of this is going to be a review in the typical sense because I can’t talk about this documentary without disclosing a strong personal connection that I find hard to separate from: I grew up with Heath Ledger on any screen I looked at. I didn’t necessarily see any of his films until I was a teenager, but from reading tabloids and keeping track of celebrity news, he was everywhere. I knew his name, and I knew he was supposed to be universally talented. So I always had a kind of salience to who he was without really knowing why people adored him until I watched Brokeback Mountain (2005).

I liken my experience of watching this documentary with how I felt watching that particular film. Both times, I went in with certain expectations because I knew about this person. Brokeback was Ledger’s shot at stardom and beyond, and many things had already been written about his performance. I Am Heath Ledger is, for all intents and purposes, made to celebrate his very full and vibrant life before an untimely demise.

And both times, I only felt the most emotional towards the end. That realisation that something is lost permanently – changed irrevocably – that hits you right in the chest and makes you sob. It gives you a sense of the deepest longing, the most ardent passion, and the most intense indignity for what is literally the epitome of unfairness.

Getting to see how Ledger interacted with cameras – vlogging before there was a word for it – and witnessing the kind of energy he expelled to the people around him is rather surreal. There’s a particular sequence where he’s just acting out his own spy movie during his early days, figuring out what looked best onscreen during the filmmaking process. He clearly had so much he wanted – needed – to share with the world. When his family and friends talk about his inability to stop his brain from rattling off into the wee hours of the morning – causing him terrible insomnia and tiring himself out – I feel a chilling sense of kinship with that. It’s an insatiability for creativity – the urge to revel in any idea that passes through one’s head even for just the briefest moment.

The film really gives off the impression that Ledger – as private as he was – was his work, but not in the way the media had portrayed it for years. There’s an insistence on happiness and contentment from the people who knew him, and given his seemingly open nature with everyone, I’m inclined to believe it. Which makes the entire film a bigger tragedy.

In a way, without actually revealing much about Ledger’s personal life, this documentary manages to explicate what really mattered to him as a performer. It’s quite rare that documentaries that appear this perfunctory do that. I could probably have done with fewer interviews, or even certain tangents that didn’t seem to have much of a real point… until it becomes obvious that it’s part and parcel of the kind of effect he had on everyone. Even to the point of influencing a Bon Iver song. Justin Vernon never met Ledger, but just hearing about him was inspiration enough.

It would have been so interesting to just have a collection of archival footage of Ledger. It probably wouldn’t have been necessary to intersperse so many people’s perspectives in between. It would have been a treat to let his video diaries speak for themselves. There is an eerie quality throughout the film though, especially during moments when it’s just his voice actually explaining what he felt about each project he did. I could have just listened to hours of that.

Even today, I’ve only seen five of Ledger’s feature films. He’s always been one of those actors I felt like I could count on to produce a good performance, so I’ve always wanted to save them up. Given his unjustly truncated filmography, that’s what I’ll continue to do. The documentary obviously banks on the love we all have for Ledger to excuse its technical messiness, but it definitely worked on me. Here I am, incapable of simply talking about this film as a movie because I can’t stop thinking about how the world really is a dimmer place without talent like Ledger.

★★★½

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