Directors: Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray
Starring: Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Emile Hirsch, Ben Harper and Ang Lee
I Am Heath Ledger is an intimate tribute to one of Australia’s most outstanding actors. The documentary, presented by Fathom Events and Network Entertainment, premiered in Perth – Heath Ledger’s hometown – on the 9th May at Luna Leederville cinema, complete with a red carpet as various members of Ledger’s family and friends attended. Yet, despite the film’s compassionate and sombre tone it fails to render Ledger’s life as it was – complex and at times troubled. What could be a passionate portrait of a talented, deeply conflicted artist, is more akin to a sanitised and celebratory eulogy for family and friends.
The documentary is another installment of director Derik Murray’s I Am series, which explores the lives and careers of other talents largely through interviews with close friends and family. Murray pieces together home videos which Ledger filmed of himself alongside interviews with family and friends, amongst them Naomi Watts, Steve Alexander and director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), painting Heath Ledger as a god amongst men: generous, brave, talented, and constantly creative. He was a good friend, a great actor, and an amazing father. Ben Harper tells us that “the earth is off its axis” with Heath gone. The film guides us through the actor’s rise to success, from starting out in the rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You to reaching formidable success in The Dark Knight. It’s beautifully put together, and provides a stunning tribute for fans of the actor. However, something is always missing.
It’s less of a documentary and more of a celebration of the good side of Heath Ledger’s life and career, ignoring anything that might paint him in a negative light, or delve into any complexities of character. The film doesn’t mention that Ledger was expelled from school, instead suggesting that he voluntarily left school early in order to travel Australia in pursuit of his acting career. His ex-girlfriend Michelle Williams is not interviewed, and the film glosses over their break-up. His drug use is ignored completely, and the film leads us to believe that the only ‘demon’ of his was sleeping problems. It avoids addressing the cause of Ledger’s shocking death at the age of 28 as an overdose of prescription drugs, quickly moving onto talk about the grief of his friends and family.
Skipping over so much, it felt like there was not enough material to fill a 155-minute film. There are multiple home-videos that are virtually the same; while they are mostly hauntingly intimate, it becomes repetitive seeing Ledger spinning around with a camera in hand. As well as Michelle, the film also fails to interview most of the directors that he worked with, instead resorting to interviews with people like Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) who never actually met Heath Ledger. In fact, except for family, each interviewee’s relationship to the actor was obscure and under-developed throughout the film. Most of their comments were bland and predictable, almost promotional.
The family supported this documentary so of course it is very one-sided, as it would be extremely hard for them to watch their son portrayed in a negative light. But documentaries for a discerning public should answer difficult questions and present raw facts. Amy, the documentary on the life of Amy Winehouse, celebrated the singer’s musical career whilst also exploring her drug and alcohol addiction. In comparison, I Am Heath Ledger falls very short. It’s disappointing because it limits the audience to adoring fans, friends, and family. I Am Heath Ledger is a touching eulogy.
Words by Zoe Tongue