Toronto Docs Dig Deep Into Celebrity With New Insights

Grace Jones-Bloodlight and Bami TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

When it comes to documentaries, the idiom — “out with the old, in with the new” — doesn’t hold much weight.

Just ask the TIFF directors behind docs about Eric Clapton, Sammy Davis Jr., Grace Jones, Jim Carrey, Andy Kaufman, Jean-Michel Basquiat and André Leon Talley. Each boldface name has garnered so much media attention that audiences might think they already know everything there is to know about them.

But the filmmakers, including Sophie Fiennes (“Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami”), Sam Pollard (“Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me”) and Lili Fini Zanuck (“Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars”) managed to challenge the existing mythologies surrounding each individual and reveal new insights through new access to each artist’s lives and work. The result? A fresh, sometimes surprising perspective on people we thought we knew.

Fiennes has been making “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” for over a decade. She calls the film an experiential, present tense doc that doesn’t rely on talking heads.

“Grace Jones exists almost as a cultural construction, an image,” she says. “This is what people know. [In this film] she exists beyond that fascinating surface, as a person and as a woman.”

In constructing “Jim & Andy: the Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton,” director Chris Smith sifted through 100 hours of never-before-seen archival footage that documented Jim Carrey’s transformation into Andy Kaufman for the 1999 film “Man on the Moon.”

Access to the unseen and unheard also made American Master’s “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” stand out from previously released Davis docs. Not only did director Pollard gain access to the performer’s estate, which included photographs taken by Davis as well as recordings, but he also interviewed the late Jerry Lewis and Kim Novak, who dated the artist.

“As far as I know, this is the first time Kim has spoken on camera about [the relationship] with Sammy,” says Pollard, who added that “access to the archives is what really takes a film like this to another level.”

Raw interviews, never-before-see footage and new photographs also make Sara Driver’s “Boom for Real The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,”

Zanuck’s “Eric Clapton” and Kate Novack’s Magnolia pic about fashion diety Talley, “The Gospel According to André” unique. While Zanuck was given rights to use Clapton’s personal archive of classic performance clips, on- and off-stage footage, photos, handwritten letters, drawings and personal diary entries, Novack persuaded Talley to reveal a side of him that the docs he had previously participated in have never exposed.

“Andre is very, very private in addition to being very public,” Novack says. “The movie opens with images inside his house, which very few people including his close friends have been to. That really represented that other, private, contemplative side to him that most people don’t know about.”

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