It’s been almost ten years since Heath Ledger died, suddenly, at the age of 28 – of an overdose on painkillers and insomnia medication. The documentary I Am Heath Ledger aims to show us more of who he was before his death, behind the headlines and stories that followed in the wake of his death. It’s currently showing at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and features interviews with fellow Australian actors like Naomi Watts and Ben Mendelsohn.
Using footage that Ledger himself shot, the documentary builds a picture of a man who was vibrant and full of energy; who never wanted to waste a moment of the life he was given. It traces his move from Australia to the US, following a woman he’d met who invited him to stay with her in LA. Once the roles started coming in, he quickly became established as a Hollywood heart-throb. The documentary shows, as his movie choices did too, that Ledger wasn’t content to ride on his blonde hair, dimpled-smile looks, and sought out more challenging roles, of the Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain kind. The doc, through interviews with his family and close friends, looks to dispel the idea that playing the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight left him depressed and led to his overdose, while shooting The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Ultimately though, at the end of the doc, we are not left with a rounded picture of Ledger and what led to his overdosing. He had his demons he was dealing with, but it feels as if the film skims over this, and chooses to focus on his vitality. But that doesn’t do him justice. What of his film Candy – about a drug addict? For someone who dove so deeply into the roles he played, did that have a detrimental impact him? I want to know. I want to know how someone who everyone around him said he was so “full of life” (according to Ben Harper, director Matt Amato, and all his friends) ends up dying suddenly, leaving behind a young daughter and a world robbed of his further artistic talents? Because maybe the reason might offer up some insight for others struggling with the demons Ledger himself faced. There is a hint that the desire to be great, and the fear of never living up to the impossible goals within his mind, is something that concerned him deeply. As it does many others.
Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t go into this issue deeper because those close to Ledger didn’t want to talk about it. But the Oscar-winning documentary Amy, which also used personal footage, allowed us to gain greater insight into the life of a star who’s flame, too, burned out bright. After watching Amy, I was still disheartened over the loss of her life, but I felt some kind of closure, a kindling of understanding. This doc, however, left me with even more questions. And sad all over again, that we lost one of our generation’s most vital actors.
Within the first few moments of One More Time with Feeling, I felt myself want to look at the friend who came with me to see it, and mouth the words “what’s happening?”, as we sat in the dark, watching Nick Cave uncomfortably follow direction from the filmmaker about re-doing a set-up shot and re-speaking words that were clearly difficult to get out in the first place, because they were working with fancy cameras no-one seemed entirely sure exactly how to use. It felt awkward because it was awkward – Cave was talking about his child’s death. Arthur, one of his twin sons, fell off a cliff in East Sussex in July 2015, after taking LSD for the first time.
The filmmaker – Andrew Dominik (who’s made noir-ish crime films like Killing Them Softly and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) clearly wanted the audience to go with the seemingly unvarnished start to the film – he is showing us he isn’t quite sure what was going to unfold, and neither are we, really. It represents something Cave says about the whole tragedy – that he hasn’t been able to distill it down into an easy-to-refer-to statement, a simple platitude, that he can pass on to others. “People say, ‘he lives in your heart,’ ” Cave says, in one interview scene. “Well, yes, he is in my heart,” he says. “But he doesn’t live.” It’s a moment so stark in truth it’s uncomfortable to hear.
In the same way, the documentary does not offer a simple trajectory about what happened, how it affected Cave and what we, as the audience and fans of his music, are meant to now know about the musician and his work. Through a series of black and white footage shot inside the studio and outside, in Brighton, and interviews with Cave in his home and in a cab, Dominik brings the different aspects of this time in Cave’s life, to us, to try experience how the work continued for him, as it had to. He literally works through this – both the literal sense of making the album and dealing with the grief and sadness of the ‘trauma,’ as Cave refers to it, in his journal-like entries and matter-of-fact answers to questions posed to him.
It’s haunting, sad, cathartic, beautiful, difficult, and ultimately a deeply moving way to experience Cave’s music. The music, the lyrics, wash over you in between the moments that Cave wanted to create as a way not to have to deal with questions from journalists while promoting the film. In the end, it’s a truly majestic accompaniment to the album. I urge you to seek it out – preferably with a great sound system so you can truly appreciate the music as it was created.