Hal Ashby is undoubtedly one of the underrated greats of American cinema. While he never quite became a household name, his films frequently had a certain magical quality to them; never quite being the film that people think of when referring to the great works of an actor, but rather that other film that always comes out in the second or third breath. Films like Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory and Being There ensured that he would keep getting work until the end of his tragically short career, even after his films stopped being recognized. Now, thirty years after his death, Ashby is finally getting the documentary treatment in Amy Scott’s aptly-titled Hal.
Hal chronologically tells the story of Hal Ashby’s filmmaking career, from his beginnings in Hollywood right up to his death, using a series of traditional and non-traditional methods; everything from talking heads and stock footage to telling the story through the use of the sometimes-found-sometimes-fabricated voice of Ashby himself. The choice of talking heads occasionally seem arbitrary, but the presence of the likes of early collaborators Norman Jewison and the late Haskell Wexler more than make up for that.
So, is this documentary worth watching? If you are a fan of Ashby, the answer is unquestionably yes. This film provides a lot of insight into the life and work of the man, aided by the fact that he was a very real person. His personality was so outward that it almost seems like he was incapable of hiding anything.
For those who are not fans, the answer is still yes, but a bit more questionable. Hal incorporates a lot of scenes from Ashby’s films, showing off their aesthetic beauty and their whimsical storytelling, both wholly unique to Ashby. The reason that it would be questionable is that the viewer would need to set aside a lot more time than just 90-minutes – they will walk out with a need to watch a whole bunch of new films.
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