In this deeply moving documentary, Heath Ledger’s family and friends, including Hollywood heavyweights Naomi Watts and director Ang Lee, offer an intimate portrait of the Aussie actor who died nearly a decade ago, at 28. Beginning with 10 Things I Hate About You, the film takes a close look at Ledger’s standout roles and how he grew from every experience to become a celebrated actor in a short time.
But the film doesn’t dwell on his career, nor does it dwell on his death. For those seeking more details about Ledger’s passing of an overdose, I Am Heath Ledger won’t offer any answers — the film only ever touches on his drug use and never voyeuristically delves into it. What it does offer, however, is a touching celebration of his life — and it largely does so by using a collection of home videos Ledger recorded throughout his career. In them, the actor often turned the camera toward himself, addressing it like a friend, asking its eventual viewer to go on “an adventure” with him, to watch him as he spins and the world around him blurs. He documented nearly every aspect of his life, from his free-spirited life in L.A. — his home was a popular place to crash for then-unknown Aussie actors like Joel Edgerton and Rose Byrne — to all the times he simply goofed off in hotel rooms around the world, grinning all the while.
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The clips not only showcase the late star’s playful personality, but also demonstrate his passion for his craft. When he wasn’t on camera, he was always taking photos and directing music videos for friends. Early in the film, the interviewees recall Ledger’s anxiety over being deemed a rising talent and having his face plastered on the posters for A Knight’s Tale. (Watts helpfully describes it as a very Australian outlook, called the “tall poppy syndrome,” in which “you feel ugly for getting too successful.”) The doc suggests that, in a way, Ledger may have simply been searching for another way to disappear, not into a character, but into himself behind the camera.
Most of all, it aims to rewrite Ledger’s legacy, from one of a superstar who died an untimely death, to one of a superstar who never thought of himself as one in life. Those interviewed describe how much their late friend, brother, and son touched their lives. (One of the film’s most moving sequences comes from musician Ben Harper, who plays a lullaby he wrote for Ledger’s daughter after Ledger gifted him a grand piano.) And though the film leaves you wanting a little more than it can provide — it shies away from the headlines that dominated Ledger’s later years, and Ledger’s ex-wife Michelle Williams wasn’t interviewed — it paints an affecting, impressionistic portrait of the actor’s singular vision and devotion to his work. In the end, Ledger simply wanted to be an artist; the haunting I Am Heath Ledger proves that his life itself was a work of art. B+
I Am Heath Ledger airs May 17 at 10 p.m. ET on Spike.