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.
There is a lot we know about Hugh Masekela’s story – about exile, about excess, about love, about jazz – much of which has been told through his excellent biography Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela. But there is still much more to be heard and understood, which is why I am looking forward to seeing the film Alekesam debut at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival.
It’s about the respected musician and how his exile from South Africa for over 30 years as a result of Apartheid impacted his relationship with his son, Selema Mabena Masekela, who we have come to know on TV as ‘Sal’. Masekela’s time in America saw him earn a number one hit with Grazin’ In The Grass in 1968, and Sal was born a few years later in 1971. Masekela left America – and Sal – to return to South Africa, where he would continue to play an important role in the struggle for freedom. 39 years later, the two confront the implications of the time apart that separated them, and the music that helped bring them back together.
Director Jason Bergh has said the film happened by a “beautiful, perfectly-timed accident,” in that it was supposed to be a short promo for Sal’s new album. He says it grew to become the most important project he’s ever worked on – the story of a father exiled from his country, and a son exiled from his father.
Alekesam screens at the TriBeCa Film Festival from the 19th to the 29th of April. To download a single from the soundtrack, visit here.