Hal

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Hal - Hal Ashby's obsessive genius led to an unprecedented string of Oscar-winning classics, including Harold and Maude, Shampoo and Being There. But as contemporaries Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg rose to blockbuster stardom in the 1980s, Ashby's uncompromising nature played out as a cautionary tale of art versus commerce.
"Ashby's daughter Leigh MacManus is one of the few contributors to offer an off-set perspective of the man - and it comes with a poignancy and beat of heartfelt truth that is lacking elsewhere." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Amy Scott's enjoyable documentary aims to profile one of the, arguably, lesser celebrated cinematic talents of the Seventies, Hal Ashby - charting his rise from editor to the director of enduring classics including Harold And Maude and The Last Detail, before touching on the downward trajectory of his work in the subsequent decade, although touching is the word.

Although using the classic 'talking heads' approach, Scott has assembled an excellent bunch for the occasion, including long-time collaborator Norman Jewison. "I just loved him," the In The Heat Of The Night director says before charting his friend's almost obsessional approach to work. He is joined in a wave of admiration for Ashby by the starry likes of Jeff Bridges, Jane Fonda and Jon Voigt, as well as fellow craftsmen including his long-time cinematographer Haskell Wexler and writer Robert Towne, and Ashby's film critic biographer Nick Dawson. There are also contributions from more modern filmmakers, including Judd Apatow and Alexander Payne, although their observations would benefit from being guided by the interviewer to stretch further beyond simply revealing how much they love his films.

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All these reminiscences are intercut with clips from Ashby's films, archive footage from some who aren't contributing in person (notable absences include Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty) and, lifting the film considerably, both recorded comments from the man himself and extracts from his letters (read by Ben Foster). Scott also makes good use of editing room paraphernalia and a record player, which form elegant bridges between segments. The talking heads format is, nevertheless, limiting, not least because nobody wants to dwell on any of Ashby's failings - for example, his drug use - preferring instead to try to buff them up and suggest much was exaggeration. There's also no real attempt to get into the nitty gritty of how - as seems to be Scott's thesis - his films have directly influenced those who came after.

There are some great anecdotes here, including Beau Bridges and Louis Gossett Jr recalling a flashpoint scene in The Landlord, and Voigt and Fonda talking about the improvised nature of Coming Home. Ashby's daughter Leigh MacManus is one of the few contributors to offer an off-set perspective of the man - and it comes with a poignancy and beat of heartfelt truth that is lacking elsewhere. This is a pleasant run through Ashby's back catalogue that is likely to make you dig around for your copy of Harold And Maude and The Last Detail, but though it brings "18 tons of peace and love" to the man's memory, it only feels like part of the story.

Reviewed on: 10 Sep 2018
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Hal packshot
Portrait of the director of Harold And Maude.


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