A surprisingly conventional portrait of a decidedly unconventional man, “Absolute Wilson” redeems itself by offering a plethora of vintage videoclips of towering avant garde theater figure Robert Wilson, along with apparently full access to Wilson and his famous friends. Sure to be embraced by his legion of fans, pic will be a fest fixture prior to specialized upscale exhibition and absolute ancillary.
Linear narrative covers all the major plot points: Wilson’s restrictive upbringing by a dismissive father and distant mother in Waco, Texas in the 1940s and ’50s; his seminal work with the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds in late 1960s New York, the international success of “Einstein on the Beach” with composer Philip Glass in 1976. Shrewdly chosen clips from his work during this period illustrate the influence his life had on the startlingly intricate and boundlessly imaginative theater pieces he created.
Appropriately, much time is spent on both the frustratingly disastrous “CIVIL WarS” period in the early 1980s, when the Los Angeles Olympic committee pulled the plug on the global happening at the 11th hour, and the vindicating success of 1991’s “The Black Rider,” with musician Tom Waits.
Throughout, Wilson talks with appealing candor about being gay and the lifelong friction with his father, “who was always a little afraid of me,” he laughs. His work with physically challenged young men is explored, though neither the black deaf mute child he adopted and built “Deafman Glance” around nor the autistic teenaged poet who inspired “Einstein on the Beach” are interviewed.
Overall impression is one of unrestricted access and harmonious cooperation, which certainly helps to humanize the often daunting scope and style of Wilson’s work. Longtime collaborators Glass, Waits, David Byrne, Jessye Norman and others speak warmly of Wilson, and even dependably bitchy critic John Simon is allowed to comment on his intense hatred of Wilson’s work.
Editor Bernardine Colish and a trio of sound mixers have done wizards’ work in blending disparate source material into a seamless whole. Miriam Cutler’s startlingly bouncy, heavyhanded score intrudes on the early reels but improbably ends up fitting with the subject’s get-it-done determination.
Helmer Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s revelation that her first cut was eight hours, and that the boxes and boxes of material salvaged from all over the world includes such gems as a complete filmed performance of “Einstein on the Beach,” ensures that future generations will have unprecedented access to the fruits of this singular stage vision.