The emotional but pointless documentary “I Am Heath Ledger” is really more of a tribute than a documentary, shedding literally no new light on the death of the extremely talented young actor. Heath Ledger was a phenomenon and this film is nice to watch as a further appreciation of him. But the avoidance of any substance whatsoever becomes pretty frustrating by the time his story reaches its inevitable conclusion.
Ledger was clearly loved by all who knew him — or at least by all who were interviewed in this excursion. All documentaries are vastly subjective, but some are more so than others. In “I Am heath Ledger,” we must work double time to read between the lines to glean any information. Fortunately, Ledger himself shot almost constant footage of himself and those around him. His “energy” was nonstop, and every interviewee mentions it.
The fact that he felt the need to work so much might tell us more than the work itself. Everyone laughs off his erratic hours and lack of sleep as an enduring quirk, even though he died from an accidental overdose of, among many kinds of pills, sleeping pills. Did no one who loved him want to admit that sometimes all this “energy” is “mania?”
This ends up being a documentary of enabling, and a tale told through omission. No one even uses the word “drugs.” They say that right before he died, he got really cold and wet filming “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” and that’s as far as anyone goes. He did not die from being cold and wet.
The most interesting part of this film concerns his role as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” It has been a popular concept that he got so deeply into preparing for this role that he went crazy and maybe even killed himself. Interview subjects such as his agent speak directly to this, and insist this was not the case. He was thrilled with the film and his role, and proud to see it come out. Of course, we know he ended up winning a posthumous Academy Award for his legendary turn.
His preparation was intense, and intensely interesting. He came up with that makeup himself. I would gladly watch a documentary that was more about him as an actor; interviews with his “Brokeback Mountain” director, Ang Lee, were fascinating, but he was the only director interviewed.
There are many directions this story could have taken, and the director — who also directed films called “I Am Chris Farley,” “I Am JFK Jr.” and “I Am Bruce Lee” — chose to go with “lovefest” as the theme. We have 20 adoring friends and family members talking about how much Ledger loved Michelle Williams and how being a dad was the most important thing in the world to him, but Williams herself is notably absent. She is praised glowingly, but still obliquely. Surely his breakup from her a few months before his death had some bearing on elements of this story.
What I heard was the devoted father of a young child described as being up all night working on music and calling friends at all hours and showing up in the middle of the night to film a music video. And everyone is in awe of how amazing his energy was, but I just pictured Williams and their baby at home. What better job for an insomniac than midnight infant feedings?
The fact is, Ledger was talented, handsome and endlessly watchable, and that makes “I Am Heath Ledger” watchable, too. The film is mostly a tribute to his career, which is great, but we learn precious little about the personal life that led this career to end so abruptly. And considering the amount of footage shot by the subject himself, this seems like a pretty big missed opportunity to me.
“I Am Heath Ledger” is currently available to rent.