I Am Heath Ledger is the latest expository film in the “I Am...” series by documentarian Derik Murray who is cornering the market on posthumous tributes to some of Hollywood’s most famous and more recent deceased celebrities. Most recently he has directed other “I Am…” pieces such as I Am Chris Farley and I Am Evil Knievel to great success.
Ledger, is a soft and tender look at the young Australian actor who at the age of 28 died from an overdose of sleeping medication while seemingly at the pinnacle of his career. And while this doc doesn’t go too deep with the details surrounding his death or turn into a “don’t do drugs” infomercial, it does serve as a warning of a life potentially wasted by showcasing Ledger as nothing short of a creative force.
As per the usual format, Murray (along with co-director Adrian Buitenhuis) mixes interview segments with video segments mostly involving key people in Heath’s personal and working life including friends and family, and a host of actors/musicians. These testimonials spend a majority of the film telling us how generous and alive a person Heath was, which of course makes the loss that much more solemn. A notable absence however was Ledger’s ex-wife and mother of his child Michelle Williams who chose not to participate on camera but did give her blessing for the project.
Also absent was anyone connected to The Dark Knight which was of course Ledger won an Oscar posthumously for his all to realistic portrayal of Batman’s nemesis the Joker. The film finally (and welcomingly) puts to bed the false narrative that portraying the deranged villain played a part in his depression which led to his overdose.
Where this doc separates itself from the usual fare and is uniquely effective is Murray had access to hours upon hours of home movies most of which were shot by Ledger himself, going all the way to back to his childhood in Australia. It’s in these intimate moments where we see Ledger for who he really was, albeit on the surface, and get a glimpse into his creative energy which is a strong narrative throughout this piece.
It’s here we also see the struggles with fame that often come to those who wish it. From his A Knight’s Tale breakdown pre-release to his foreboding about dying young we see that fame comes with a price.
I Am Heath Ledger just scratches the surface of this young actor’s life and really serves as a launching off point leaving the viewer to complete the scene and dig deeper. It doesn’t bother to get too preachy but rather focuses on generosity of spirit and in particular Ledger’s loyalty to his eclectic mix of childhood friends and famous actors, artists and musicians. Aided by the footage and testimonials from these famous friends such as Naomi Watts, Ben Harper and Ben Mendelsohn, we clearly see Ledger was a true artist in every sense and perhaps more importantly a loyal friend.
And while it doesn’t go deep enough to complete an understanding of his process or craft it does actor as a mirror at times and we do occasionally begin to see the layers beneath surface. Moments of Ledger shooting himself POV style and making faces at the camera are revealing and interesting from a actor’s perspective and gives us a small glimpse into the workings of a man still intent on improvement.
But the doc smartly is less interested in analyzing Ledger’s acting technique than showcasing his overall creative force. Ledger’s desire to direct and make art was evident and was really pushing a film and music production company when he died. He “was the most alive” person on the planet, friend and musician Ben Harper says, claiming to feel that this world, in which friends discuss his loss, is an alternate reality.
The void left in his absence is clearly seen on the faces of those that new him best, even still almost 10 years later and that is what should be the main takeaway from this film. While it doesn’t provide us a true psychosomatic analysis of Heath Ledger (do we even want that?) it does show us that a man’s body of work extends beyond the screen.
For any fan of Heath Ledger, this will be a very pleasing experience and perhaps provide a bit of closure.
I Am Heath Ledger airs May 17th on Spike TV!
For more insight into Heath and the making of this documentary, check out my fascinating interview with director Derik Murray in another post!
Till next time…