The Real Charlie Chaplin, 2021.
Co-written and directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney.
Charlie Chaplin was a pivotal figure in cinema. In this documentary Peter Middleton and James Spinney explore what made this silent movie enigma tick, through unprecedented access to archive materials.
For anyone who knows anything about cinema Charlie Chaplin is a legend. A certified star of silent film, who built his own studio, became his own mogul and formed United Artists alongside Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Junior and D.W.Griffith. What film stars like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt do through their own production companies may be considered the template in contemporary terms, but not even those actors built a studio. That sort of thing has been left to people like Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen with Dreamworks. Which brings us to the question of what new insights this latest documentary brings to the table.
In the main Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s film offers nothing new. It charts the birth and rise of Charlie Chaplin from workhouse urchin to vaudeville star quickly, noting his gift for physical comedy and unwavering ambition. A move from music halls to America encompasses Mack Sennett, before swiftly moving into his creation of the tramp. Elsewhere, archive interviews are interspersed with dramatic recreations, while home movies from the Charlie Chaplin vaults fill in the blanks.
From these elements emerges a portrait of creative duplicity. The dichotomy between his personal and public personas, reveals a man at odds with being both a family man and public figure. This is where The Real Charlie Chaplin comes to life, gaining credence through its exploration of the man visually rather than on paper. What also comes through is his fastidious attention to detail, where performances were fine tuned to the point where even Stanley Kubrick would have walked away.
Forever writing, performing and building on an endless stream of ideas, Charlie Chaplin’s run of films is impressive. From The Kid through to Modern Times and The Great Dictator, he was clearly burdened with an intellect and a desire to communicate ideas beyond the tramp’s persona. Granted his stance on political issues of the time might have had its detractors, but there is no denying that legacy. He may have been blacklisted during the McCarthy witch-hunts, been trashed by attention seeking gossip columnists and hounded by the FBI, but Charlie Chaplin had earned his stripes.
In his golden years he retired to Switzerland and put some distance between himself and the industry which made him rich. Talking heads from surviving family members cast some vague light on the man pictured in home movies relaxing in his vast estate, but audiences are unlikely to be enlightened further by this final element. Unfortunately, for a documentary which promised to get under the skin of a cinematic icon, The Real Charlie Chaplin never really measures up.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★