On making Drew Barrymore cry.

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“Spielberg” is an HBO-produced documentary by documentarian Susan Lacy. You’ll never guess who the subject is?! 

Steven Spielberg is a product of one of the most surprising revolutions in Hollywood in the late 70’s: one of a set of wunderkind directors alongside such luminaries as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorcese.  These men (only men, it should be noted!) were ready to cock a snook at Hollywood’s traditional studio system to break rules (case in point, Star Wars’ lack of opening credits) and move cinema into the format that would last to this day. 

As this excellent documentary makes clear, Spielberg was one of the least rebellious of the movie-brats. Even though (astoundingly) he blagged himself a production office at Universal (after hiding during the Tram Tour toilet stop!), his path to the top was through hard graft on multiple Universal TV shows, after recognition of his talents by Universal exec Sidney Sheinberg who speaks in the film. 

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The master of the frame composition. The young Spielberg learns his craft. (Source: HBO).

Before we get to that stage of his life, we cover his childhood back-story as a reluctant Jew living in a non-Jewish neighbourhood, driven to fill his time with tormenting his sisters and movie-making with a Super 8 camera. Scenes of home videos, photos and his early attempts at special effects are all fascinating. The impact of his Bohemian mother Leah and workaholic father Arnold, and particularly the very surprising relationship breakdown that happened between them, go a long way to explain the constant return to ‘father issues’ in many of his films such as “E.T.”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Hook” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. 

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Spielberg on Spielberg. (Source: HBO).

The majority of the film though settles down into a roughly chronological review of the highlights of his movie career, with particular emphasis justly being placed on some of the key watershed moments in that career.  Most of his films get at least a mention, but “Jaws”, “E.T.”, “Schindler’s List”, “The Color Purple”, “Jurassic Park”, “Munich” and “Empire of the Sun” get more focus. It is such a wonderful trip down my cinematic memory lane. I also forget just what cinematic majesty and craftsmanship is present in these films: I just hope that at some point this will get a Blu-Ray or DVD release so it can be properly appreciated (rather than viewing it on a tiny airplane screen which is how I watched this): the combination of film clips in here is breathtaking. 

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A big kid at heart. Spielberg giving direction to Henry Thomas in the finale of E.T. (which even as a short clip in the documentary still has the ability to make me cry like a baby!) (Source: Universal/Everett Collection)

As might be expected for a documentary about the great director, there is plenty of ‘behind the camera’ footage on show, some of which is fascinating. Spielberg could always get the very best performances out of the youngsters on set, from Cary Guffey (“Toys!!”) in “Close Encounters” to a heartbreaking scene where he reduces the young Drew Barrymore to howls of emotion in “E.T.”.  A master at work.

All of the movie scenes are accompanied by new interview footage from Spielberg himself, as well as warm platitudes from many of the luminaries he has worked with in the past. Directors involved include many of the the directors referenced above, as well as those modern directors influenced by him such as J.J. Abrams; his go-to cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Janusz Kaminski; his ‘go-to’ composer John Williams; and stars including his go-to ‘everyman’ Richard Dreyfuss, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Bob Balaban, Tom Hanks, Opray Winfrey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Dustin Hoffman and James Brolin. Some of these comments are useful and insightful; some are just fairly meaningless sound bites that add nothing to the film. What all the comments are though is almost all uniformly positive. 

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Pulling out a gut reaction. Drew Barrymore and a dying alien. (Source: Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment).

And that’s my only criticism of the film. Like me, Susan Lacy is clearly a big fan. It is probably quite hard to find anyone who isn’t…. but perhaps Ms Lacy should have tried a bit harder! There is only limited focus on his big comedy flop of 1979, “1941”, and no mention at all of his lowest WW grossing film “Always”.  And there are only a few contributors – notably film critic Janet Maslin – who are willing to stick their head above the parapet and prod into Spielberg’s weaknesses; ostensibly his tendency to veer to the sentimental and away from harder issues: the omitted “Color Purple” ‘mirror scene’ being a case in point.  

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Director Susan Lacy with her icon at the premiere. (Source: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images North America)

This is a recommended watch for Spielberg fans. On the eve of the launch of his latest – “Ready Player One”, a film that I am personally dubious about from the trailer – it’s a great insight into the life and works of the great man. It could though have cut a slightly harder and more critical edge.  

Fad Rating:  FFFF.

 

 

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