One of the most enriching and enjoyable docs about a filmmaker in recent memory, Louis Black and Karen Bernstein’s Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny reveals the peculiar pairing of modesty with artistic ambition that has allowed the director to thrive in an industry that doesn’t cotton to his sort of artist. It will serve as an excellent entry point for those who became aware of the helmer after the audacious Boyhood and wondered what this man is about; for those of us who have followed his work since before he debuted at Sundance 25 years ago with Slacker, it is a joy-filled reminder of the high points of a career we hope is just hitting its stride.
Not the first doc to assess Linklater’s unpredictable oeuvre, this one sets itself apart quickly, both in its access (several interviews with the subject, delightful old behind-the-scenes materials) and in the content of its interviews: Famous face or not, a speaker has to have something insightful to say to make the cut here; mere praise will not do. This may come as a happy surprise to Austinites familiar with Black’s Austin Chronicle editorials, which over the years have often risked sycophancy when discussing the filmmakers he befriends.
The doc Linklater’s one-of-a-kind career deserves.
Here, Black’s long association with his subject is an unalloyed advantage. He knew Linklater before Slacker got made (he’s a memorable presence in the film, in fact), and efficiently illustrates how the Austin Film Society, which Linklater and friends founded to show art films in the then-sleepy college town, both taught the aspiring filmmaker about DIY promotion and gave him a ready-made crew for Slacker. Speaking of those early, communal days, crew- and cast-member Clark Walker describes Linklater’s ability to collaborate generously while staying fixed on his own vision: “While you’re doing it, you’re pretty sure it’s your idea, too.”
The film offers plentiful pre-moviemaking biographical material and spends enjoyable time thumbing through the spiral notebooks where Linklater kept journals full of big ideas. Offering wisdom any wannabe auteur should heed, Linklater describes his approach to the one-man production of his pre-Slacker feature It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (“It’s a long time before your technical skills catch up to your ideas.”) and shows the meticulous, Walden-inspired accounts he kept of how he spent his money and time in those days.
From today’s vantage, it’s hard to understand how Dazed and Confused, a contender for best teen film ever, could be seen as a disappointment. But that was the first encounter the director had with a studio that wanted to sell his work as something it wasn’t, and failed. (Even years later, when the pic’s reputation was well established, Universal’s DVD releases were a disgrace.) Here and with The Newton Boys, which threw even his fans for a loop, Linklater reports with satisfaction that whatever problems he faced, he was always able to make the movie he was trying to make.
The doc feels a strong pull toward the achievements even casual cinephiles know about, offering plenty of reminiscences from the days when the Before… films and Boyhood were viewed by Hollywood as an artist’s folly. Julie Delpy recalls being dumped by her agent when she insisted on making “a sequel to a movie that no one cared about”; IFC’s Jonathan Sehring admits to worrying, after a half-dozen or so years of Boyhood shoots, that the rest of the world would think it was as dull as a stranger’s home videos.
These sections offer the thrill of seeing Linklater humbly prove everyone wrong. But the doc isn’t as good at making a case for his less celebrated work. It is almost defensive regarding Me and Orson Welles, for instance, instead of honing in on the moments when that film captured what it feels like to leave the sticks and seek artistic transcendence in a city like New York.
For the young Linklater, of course, NYC and L.A. were “too big a leap” from rural East Texas, and he planted himself in a city that would grow along with him. Black and Bernstein spend some transporting time at the Bastrop property Linklater has refashioned as his own nature preserve, a place for dreaming far from the pressures of showbiz. There we watch as he preps for this year’s Everybody Wants Some, often described as a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. What other far-fetched experiments are currently being plotted in that little book-lined cabin?
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production company: Black/Bernstein Productions, Arts + Labor
Directors: Louis Black, Karen Bernstein
Producers: Karen Bernstein, Dawn Johnson
Executive producers: Alan Berg, Louis Black, Abe Zimmerman, John McCall, Amy McCall
Director of photography: David Layton
Editor: Nevie Owens
Composer: Graham Reynolds
Not rated, 90 minutes