The feature length made for TV doc receiving its world premiere at Tribeca, I AM HEATH LEDGER, will be a moving experience for fans of the late star and posthumous Oscar-winner.
It maps his journey from being a Perth schoolboy to a Hollywood leading man, as well as his artistic growth, evident with each new role, using home video, childhood photographs, on set behind the scenes footage, film clips and interviews. It’s a portrait of an energetic artist in control of his own career, always looking for the next creative challenge.
What makes I AM HEATH LEDGER worth seeking out is the intimate video footage, much of which was shot by Ledger himself, who we learn was rarely without a camera in hand. With no formal training, Ledger honed his screen acting technique by filming himself and seeing what worked. We see Ledger turn his camera on himself to try out looks and angles and even create an effective selfie thriller with him running around a hotel in character. This personal archive footage is the strongest aspect of the film and I found it hard not to wish that the filmmakers had stayed more focused on it, delivering something closer to recent bio-docs such as COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK or AMY.
With several accomplished music videos as director, and his continual experimentation with photography and filming, a strong sense builds that we have not only been deprived of the many classic screen performances Ledger would have given us had his life not been cut short, but also the work he no doubt would have produced from behind the camera. His music video for ‘Cause An Effect’ for his friend N’fa Jones shot in the actor’s garage is particularly striking.
In the months before his death he was collaborating with Don’t Look Now screenwriter Allan Scott on the screenplay for a chess related drama based on the novel The Queen’s Gambit, which he was looking to direct and star in potentially opposite Ellen Page. We learn from Steve Alexander, Heath’s longtime agent that the young star enjoyed turning down all the teenage rom-coms he was offered after the success of 10 Things I Hate About You. Whereas many actors on the rise would’ve been tempted by a superhero role he wasn’t interested in playing Spider-Man when he was approached about it. Instead his career choices were largely led by the directors he wanted to work with and learn from.
The most insightful interviews come from Ledger’s industry colleagues and friends, most notably fellow Australian Naomi Watts. At one point she talks about ‘tall poppy syndrome’ as something that she feels concerned Heath as he started to become more famous than his friends, with his face alone adorning the poster for A Knight’s Tale, with the tagline ‘He Will Rock You’. We also learn from Alexander that Ledger was uncomfortable taking on such a prominent role in promoting that film at that stage in his career.
Ang Lee, who cast Heath after being impressed by his work in Monster’s Ball, discusses the effectiveness of Ledger’s tight physicality and voice in Brokeback Mountain. As we hear from others who worked with him such as Catherine Hardwicke, Emile Hirsch, Ben Mendelsohn and Djimon Hounsou, Ledger’s dedication and his boundless, often restless, creative energy are recurring themes in the interviews. We learn that eerily Ledger had a strong sense of his own mortality, resulting in an urgency to achieve what he wanted to.
Although we’re told that Ledger spent six weeks mostly in his apartment finding the voice and movement for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, his dialect coach Gerry Grennell says that between takes on set he was in a light and playful mood. Taking the opportunity to observe one of contemporary cinema’s masters, Ledger was often on set at Christopher Nolan’s side on the days he wasn’t needed as an actor.
Ledger was clearly a loyal and generous friend and continued to keep many of his childhood pals in his life despite making new famous friends in Hollywood. When living in LA, his home looked like a fun place to be with him opening the doors to provide a creative refuge for friends who found themselves in the city, with Ledger usually found on the decks spinning records from his beloved music collection at regular parties.
The emotional interview with Ledger’s close friend, musician Ben Harper, is particularly moving, as is his performance of the lullaby Heath asked him to compose for his daughter Matilda. Ledger directed the music video for Ben Harper’s song ‘Morning Yearning. Remaining a respectful tribute, there’s little in the way of light and shade or any real depth when it comes to covering certain areas of his life such as the end of his marriage to Michelle Williams or his untimely death. Instead the film focuses on his artistic life which certainly provides rich material to be explored.
The poignant family interviews serve to remind us of the deep personal loss they suffered, exacerbated by having to share that grief with film lovers worldwide as well as contend with the inevitable media interest. Although uneven in places, I AM HEATH LEDGER serves as a worthy celebration of a life and career cut tragically short.
Watch the official trailer here and visit the film’s website here. Following its run at Tribeca, I AM HEATH LEDGER will play in 300 US cinemas for a special one-night event on May 3rd, premiere on Spike TV on May 17th at 10pm ET/PT, followed by a digital/DVD release on May 23rd.