Not all home movies are created equal, as proved by “The Peter Sellers Story — As He Filmed It,” a fascinating BBC docu assembled almost entirely out of the subject’s own voluminous archive of self-lensed reels. Evidently obsessed with shooting anything and everything, Sellers here is revealed once again as a man who was seldom “off” — because when he was, depression took over. Given footage of him on sets of now-classic features, at home and at play (with the Royal Family, Sophia Loren and others), this unique “autobiography” reps a film buff’s delight. It’s a natural for quality tube slots.
Pastiche docu reworks elements from 1995 BBC “Peter Sellers Story,” an award-winning trilogy. This time, material has been compacted to feature length, with nearly all visuals taken from subjects’ home movies; intimates’ interviews are now restricted to audio track.
Apparently, the restless Sellers became addicted to filming his friends and coworkers from an early point (footage glimpsed goes back to 1948), using mostly 16mm color stock that’s in exceptionally good shape. More, these weren’t just goof-off or family-portrait shots, but often quite elaborately staged/edited micro-features that made full use of his “Goon Show” co-conspirators and later, even more famous pals. Many bits resemble silent slapstick routines, and/or presage the kind of freeform wackiness Richard Lester would popularize in his Beatles features.
Beyond such divertissements, pic generally traces the arc of Sellers’ career, as well as the less triumphant themes in his oft-unhappy personal life. He’s shown frolicking between takes on sets for such lasting titles as “The Ladykillers,” “I’m All Right, Jack,” “The Mouse That Roared,” “After the Fox” and “The Millionairess,” where he met the sumptuous Loren, with whom he became “besotted” — one of many such trials endured by first wife Anne Levy. Levy notes that by the end of their marriage he treated her like his mother, even asking her advice on “girl trouble.” (Sellers’ relationship with his real mother was evidently an uncomfortable, too-close one, as portended by fact that she named him after a prior child who’d died.)
Other soundtrack commentators, some long-since departed, include second wife Britt Ekland; directors Bryan Forbes, Peter Hall, Blake Edwards and Stanley Kubrick (who called thesp a “master of improvisation” whom he never filmed with fewer than three cameras); thesps including Loren, Herbert Lom and Spike Milligan; longtime chauffeur/companion Bert Mortimer and daughter Sarah Sellers.
Commentators recall increasingly erratic behavior at home and at work — at one point Sellers simply disappeared for three weeks from the set of megabudget Bond spoof “Casino Royale,” then again from his own (third) honeymoon. Fourth spouse, fellow actor Lynne Frederick, is seen but not heard from here. Several pics are briefly excerpted, as are clips from TV interview shows and a London Hippodrome performance.
Some thought Sellers mad toward the end, as borne out by his professed clairvoyant communication with God, dead mom and others. A paranoically jealous husband, he “Thought nobody loved him,” (Ekland says) though he’s shown here as the adored life of a nonstop party that at various points included Princess Margaret, Prince Charles, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. Sellers ceased making home movies in 1977, not long before succumbing to a final series of heart attacks.
If this suggests a sad tale of genius aggrieved and unhinged by massive success, it’s only a part of “Story’s” thrust. For the most part, pic is quite jubilant, capturing a comic genius clowning about amid celebrity friends and extravagant settings.
Footage from what is apparently a huge Sellers-shot archive (little of which has ever been seen before by anyone but friends and family) is first-rate in terms of framing, eye-popping color and preservation quality. Co-helmers Anthony Hall and Peter Lydon have assembled a tight package that works well in feature-narrative terms.