on 17 September 2012
This is the best documentary on Dean I've seen, from period documentaries to all those supplementary retrospectives on DVDs of Dean's three films.
James Dean: The First American Teenager was made in 1975, long enough after Dean's death to get some perspective on his fame and close enough to Dean's generation to visit the vital locations of his life and times; to contact his peers, his friends and relatives and his drama coach, and get exclusive comments from people like Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Nicholas Ray and Leonard Rosenman.
Some interviewees don't buy Dean's image, and you're trusted to make up your own mind.
It's understated, giving Dean the space to define himself, which he does, in clips and candid photos and anecdotes.
There is some cool montage of Dean on film: beyond the obligatory scenes that everyone includes, there are telling observations that glimpse something of the essence of the man in a second. Sat on a sidewalk minding his own broody business, Dean doesn't notice a woman walk by behind him -- but actually he does, furtively, and this documentary catches his awareness. The clip is Cal shadowing his estranged mother in East of Eden.
The montage spreads out a Dean monologue across several clips from all three films. Ray Connolly artfully puts these pieces together and puts the pacing through the gear changes of an ace. He's after the essence of the actor, because if he can catch that then Dean's influence on the culture will follow automatically.
Incidentally, James Dean: The First American Teenager now documents another layer: it's a documentary on Dean's iconic influence on the mid-Seventies. The early-Seventies rock soundtrack fits Dean's image amazingly well: dynamic, edgy, cool.
You'll see `Rebel, Rebel' listed among the music credits but alas for this release that music has been replaced: one of those infuriating licence lapses. But Elton John's `Funeral for a Friend' never sounded so poignant, and `Movin' On' by Bad Company fits one montage so well it could have been written for it. Of course The Eagles weigh in with a song that was new at the time, `James Dean.'
It turns out there's a useful extensive booklet that comes with the DVD, with quotations from the main players and a 2007 essay by Ray Connolly looking back on Dean and the documentary and what we're left with now, with half-a-century on the clock. My favourite Dean retrospective by a mile.
on 12 August 2014
A good documentary with some interestingly sourced photos which I'd not seen before, many of which further enhanced my suspicions about the actor, that he was certainly a very vulnerable and rather introverted individual who jumped into acting in an attempt to relieve himself of his private demons. Because of this, I think that his ultimate act in this world may well have been deliberate. In this film the obvious sensitivity and temper of this angry young man was certainly used by his directors to make a deep and memorable contribution to the history of American films, and also to lay down a blueprint for the future of Western youth .
on 24 August 2010
I first saw this documentary when I was very little - my mother had recorded it when it was shown on telly in the late 1980s. I could have only been about 6 or 7 but the images of James Dean was just so striking and enticing. His hunched stature, with his big sad dark eyes, and a cigarette hanging from his mouth. This documentary was so interesting and revealing - going back to his birth in Indiana, being parted from his father, his first television breaks onto landing his role in East of Eden, and his untimely death on State Route 46 on September 30th 1955 in his Porsche Spyder "Little Bastard".
The music was one of the most enduring memories for me. The image of Dean with the gun across his back, and sitting in the car wearing his cowboy hat, with the piano section of Eric Clapton's Layla playing has been embedded in my head ever since I first watched it.
A fitting tribute to such an enigmatic and mysterious young man.