I Am Heath Ledger, 2017.
Directed by Adrian Buitenhuis & Derik Murray.
Featuring Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Ben Mendelsohn, and Djimon Hounsou.
Using home video footage and artwork from across his life, this documentary charts the life and career of Heath Ledger, all the way to his untimely death…
Almost a decade on, the death of Heath Ledger still, at times, doesn’t seem real. Arguably one of the brightest performers of the last twenty years, Ledger’s star burned brightly and burned out even faster, and I Am Heath Ledger serves as almost a personal epilogue to that career; a visual memoir, an autobiography as much as a documentary from directors Adrian Buitenhuis & Derik Murray, and a film it’s fair to say Ledger himself could have gifted to the world. Despite his untimely demise, he is enormously present across this portrait, which combines talking head recollections with clips from his performances and, most strikingly, a huge series of artwork, images and recorded footage of Heath the man outside of Heath the movie star.
To a degree you could make the comparison with a documentary such as the Oscar-winning Amy, which itself placed its central, deceased figure visually at the heart of the tale being told, but the difference here is that I Am Heath Ledger refuses to dwell on the sadness or foreboding nature of his death. This is a film about his life, about his achievements and, principally, the sheer force of will which drove his relationships and his career. His death is present, naturally the knowledge of that drapes across the picture, but it’s not the point, and it’s not the entire purpose. Buitenhuis & Murray’s mission here is to present Heath Ledger, almost, in his own words and images, alongside a variety of friends, family and professional colleagues who knew him well.
Despite the ultimate tragedy of his story, we see Ledger’s life was full of much joy and happiness; the directors don’t dwell too heavily on his youth or upbringing (which seems to have included a parental separation), nor do they particularly focus on the dynamic with his family, perhaps because there isn’t much to tell; it appears to have been a family filled with love toward him, excited as he blazed a trail from a very young age from Australia to Hollywood, and the directors focus on his journey from the breakout role in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, all the way through to his final film, unfinished by him, 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. A ten-year period filled with life and love, and by picking through his career, its striking how Ledger was far more a character actor choosing complex, varied and artistic roles than traditional leading man parts. The closest he came was probably 2001’s A Knight’s Tale, probably one of his weakest films.
The documentary isn’t just about his movie career, it must be pointed out; Buitenhuis & Murray spend plenty of time exploring Heath the man and his other creative pursuits, revolving around photography and music, such as directing music videos (often for friends who were performers), and revealing the background to his Hollywood lifestyle – well-known actors such as Naomi Watts & Ben Mendelsohn recall how Heath created essentially an Australian actor stronghold in LA and by all accounts was extremely welcoming and gregarious. A picture is also painted as someone who was obsessive, sometimes wonderfully and sometimes painfully; actor Djimon Hounsou becomes tearful recalling how visibly different Heath looked in the negative after a few years not seeing him.
This points to the main fault of the documentary – it shies away from the deeper psychological aspects of Ledger’s nature. There are hints – his difficulty sleeping due to the creative intensity he felt, his moments of panic in company or how he hated the celebrity of stardom, all the way to bouts of crippling lack of confidence on set. These elements are only paid lip-service, however, especially when it comes to the recognised effect playing The Joker in The Dark Knight had on him, the role he will undoubtedly be most remembered for. Michelle Williams, his wife and the mother of his child, is also curiously absent here, for reasons unknown; consequently this feels like an incomplete picture of Heath, lacking the ambiguity and depth as it serves to accentuate the positives.
Nonetheless, I Am Heath Ledger will illuminate a man taken long long before his time, with a blend of interesting and at times moving interviews with many closest to him, and some extremely comprehensive personal home video footage which shines an intimate light on Ledger the man outside of Ledger the star. Does it give you everything? Not quite. In this instance, that’s ok. It’s a well framed, sprightly and entertaining portrait and celebration of a fine actor and, by all accounts, a vibrant human being. The acting world remains lesser without him, even now.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★