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Bruce Lee: A Life Hardcover – 5 Jun 2018
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'At last, Bruce Lee has the powerful biography he deserves. Matthew Polly’s book is packed with new information and sharp insights. It will thrill Lee’s fans and fascinate the unfamiliar. Bravo!'
—Jonathan Eig, author of Ali: A Life and Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig
'Believe it or not, Bruce Lee has never been the subject of a truly in-depth biography—until now. With this meticulously researched, beautifully realized work, Matthew Polly has written the definitive account. It moves with the authority, grace and economy of Lee himself. I was hooked from the first chapter.'
—Jimmy McDonough, author Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography and Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green
'You won’t find a better match for a biographer with his subject than Matthew Polly and Bruce Lee. From Lee's early days as the self-proclaimed Cha-cha Champion of Hong Kong to his final, fiery years as the iconic, fist flashing, kung-fu master, Polly tells Bruce Lee’s story with clarity and empathy, tearing away the myths to reveal Lee’s most interesting persona yet: the man himself. A definitive biography, told with passion and punch.'
— Brian Jay Jones, author George Lucas: A Life and Jim Henson: The Biography.
About the Author
Matthew Polly is the national bestselling author of American Shaolin, and Tapped Out, and Bruce Lee. A Princeton University graduate and Rhodes Scholar, he spent two years studying kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Esquire, Slate, Playboy, and The Nation. He is a fellow at Yale University and lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
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Hoping not 7 years till next book.
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My initial introduction to Lee at the tender age of 6, was through a movie still. Captivated by his image, I sought out as many photos and stories as I could, getting my fix mostly through magazines and campfire lore. I would not actually see him in action til' a year later, in Game of Death 1978 (the opening 4 minutes and final 11 minutes of this film's effect on me is comparable to Saul's conversion to Paul). My lack of access to his movies at that time ( this was pre home cinema and smart phones), to me, reinforced his mythical status. Looking back, I'm inclined to believe that this was the genesis of my obsessive life long search for him. In the ensuing years, in addition to viewing his adult filmography repeatedly (with near religious fervor), I read every biography, watched every documentary and meticulously dissected whatever I could find on the man. Initially, I took pride in the 'facts' I'd gleaned, content in the basic beats of his story as well as what I discovered 'off script'. But following the honeymoon period(admittedly, a long one), stagnation set in, and I grew a bit disillusioned. What bothered me in particular was this: Bruce Lee's story, to me, had become, to quote Tarantino, "a game of show and tell. You're showing me everything, but telling me nothing". Paradoxically, the more I discovered, the less I felt I knew.
One of the residual benefits of being a seeker, is the compulsive need to fill in gaps. To that end, I made the beat between the beats the focus of my Lee studies. Who was the man? What kept him up at night? What drove his insatiable need to be regarded as the best? Who were his heroes? How did he handle embarrassing moments in his life? Etc., etc. Some of those questions I found answers to. Some I'll never know. Upon reflection though, this quest to understand my idol was equally driven by the need to understand aspects of myself and, ultimately, liberate me from the grips of hero worship. Essentially, it was a gateway for me to come into my own. In my heart of hearts, my need to understand Bruce Lee was transformative. That's how much of an impact he had on me. I often mused about writing and producing a 'definitive' bio that presented him as a three dimensional human being - not the superhuman comic book character resurrected from the ashes, ipso facto. To be fair, I had spent a helluva lot of time with that dude, and, while I was grateful for his inspiration and indebted to him for starting me on my martial path, I needed time with the other guy (or the dude pretending to be the other dude). Enter Matthew Polly.
Full disclosure: I had reached out to Matt a couple of years prior to the release of his book. My intent, at the time, was to qualify him as a biographer. What was his focus going to be? What was the tone was he going for? How granular was he going to get? Was it going to be a regurgitation of the same ol', same ol'? Ever the gentleman, he replied back and stated his intention in no unclear terms: his goal was to write the most complete biography on Bruce Lee, and hoped to present the man, as is, warts and all. I had heard this kind o' stuff before. And I was skeptical.
Two years and 650 pages (actually 2,000+ which he whittled down) later, I'm thrilled to say that Matthew Polly has done the impossible. That is, he's chronicled and captured the intricacies of a complex man who's been deified in all things martial and worshipped by many as a superhuman force that's beyond understanding. It's difficult to overstate how difficult Matt's journey must have been wading through 45 years of mist and mire to reach the man behind the curtain. In doing so, he doesn't just write the definitive Bruce Lee biography, rather, he creates a work of intimate beauty truly worthy of it's subject matter. Equal parts character study, adventure story and forensic dissection, Polly's tome is a meditation on our very own 20th century Dorian Gray. With that, he succeeds in demythologizing the god, and celebrating the legend.
Where to begin? The sheer wealth of information this opus has to offer (most of which I'm completely comfortable saying will be unknown to even the most die hard of fans) is only half of what truly makes it the monumental achievement it is. Equally as important are the revelations gleaned from the connective tissue that Polly seamlessly weaves into stories and anecdotes that most fans are familiar with, providing a broader perspective to those tales and giving them their proper context. Indeed, many folks will be surprised by the pieces missing from the stories they thought they knew. Additionally, the first 80 pages spend a significant amount of time tracing Lee's lineage and exploring his adolescent film career and life in Hong Kong (the first piece of writing to accurately do so) prior to coming back to the US in 1959. Moreover, we're given a historical overview of Hong Kong itself and the social environment that the young Bruce Lee came up in (the information here is paramount to understanding his 'origin'). For those who've heard the Frank Sinatra/Vic Damone rumor of Lee's impromptu Gung Fu demonstration on their bodyguards --the true story is finally revealed. Later, Polly gives us the first real information on Lee's little known "Northern Leg, Southern Fist" script treatment. Most fans know that Lee was a pretty good pencil artist, but are they aware of what specific art he admired and may have harbored a desire to pursue himself? Yet another: what was the timeline of July 20th, 1973 and what were the contributing factors that led to Lee's death? The answers are all laid out, hour by hour, and supported by those involved in distinctly quantifiable ways. All this and much more is relayed to the reader in a deeply resonant and visceral way that defies category. Indeed, the emotional connection is so riveting that, when reading each page, one feels they are there, alongside Lee, in his head, experiencing his very thoughts and emotions. It's a level of intimacy rarely achieved in writing, let alone a bio.
There's a distinct difference between a subject matter expert and a substance matter expert. Subject matter experts memorize other people's information, while substance matter experts understand the skeleton and mechanics of the subject and impart what they learned, not what they memorized. With this work of art, Matt Polly proves himself to be a true substance matter expert whose keen attention to detail reveals exactly how much of a labor of love this project was to him. Like many of us, Matt's life was forever changed by Bruce Lee. On more than one occasion, he's intimated that writing this book was his way of paying back that debt to his childhood idol.
He succeeded. Boy, did he.
Thank you Matt, for giving us this much needed, long overdue gift. In a very real way, you've produced the book I wish I'd written.
Full disclosure, I got an early ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review, and I know the author in real life. That being said, I'm a Bruce Lee fanatic and would have been less forgiving than most others. I've read every article and book on the man since I was a youngster.
This. Is. What we've all been waiting for. This is the one.
Complete, honest, researched and thoughtful... and full. It's an expansive universe, how Lee came to be, and while the author doesn't neglect Lee's flaws and faults, it is, in fact, these very frailties that make up appreciate the man even more so... because he becomes human.
And for the life of me, how did I or anyone else not even consider what Polly surmised was the true cause of Lee's death (you'll have to read it yourself to find out)... this book is a revelation.
I highly, highly recommend this book, not just for fans, but for anyone in how far ambition and courage can take any man in the face of insurmountable odds.