William Shatner has spent much of his career being a good sport about accepting — and, in certain TV commercials, cannily exploiting — the role of human punchline. But he supplements his trademark self-mockery with heartfelt sincerity, emotional openness and wisps of wistful melancholy in “William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet,” a surprisingly revealing doc that suggests the full depths of his self-awareness and — no kidding — artistic aspirations. Although too short for consideration as a theatrical item, the docu likely will live long and prosper as homevid and cable fare after a trek through the global fest circuit.

Pic pivots on efforts by famed choreographer Margo Sappington to create a ballet based on spoken-word songs from the album “Has Been,” an acclaimed collaboration by Shatner and musician-producer Ben Folds. Helmer Patrick Buckley adroitly intercuts between scenes of dance preparation and performance, interviews with Folds and others involved with the original album — and, most important, earnestly expressed recollections and recitations by Shatner himself.

The ironically titled “Has Been,” Shatner freely admits, was an attempt to demonstrate the seriousness of his musical ambitions years after an earlier album — “The Transformed Man,” featuring spoken-word renderings of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” — was jeeringly greeted as an instant camp classic. Obviously still slightly wounded by that reception, Shatner thanks Folds for encouraging him to take another chance at making music — a gamble that, judging from the evidence here, paid off artistically if not financially.

There’s a distinctively autobiographical flavor to the songs Shatner performs as the score for Sappington’s lithe dancers. Most notably: “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” which finds Shatner still hungry, and vaguely discontented, after all these years; and the album’s title track, a seriocomic song of defiance that insists only those who actually achieve something can later be labeled a “has been.”

While introing these and other songs, and during the pic’s unexpectedly moving final scenes, Shatner comes across as at once playful and pensive, amused and unguarded. Even the actor’s worst critics likely will find something to admire in the pic’s intimate, affectionate portrait of Shatner as a game risk-taker who, for better or worse, is nowhere near ready to start playing it safe.

Tech values are sharp.

William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet

  • Production: A Big Screen Entertainment Group production. Produced by David Zappone, Michael Manasseri, Kevin Layne. Executive producers, William Shatner, Kimberly Kates, Scott Woollery. Directed by Patrick Buckley. Co-directors, Bobby Ciraldo, Andrew Swant, Kevin Layne.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DV), Mark Escribano; editor, Ray Chi; music, Ben Folds. Reviewed at Nashville Film Festival, April 17, 2009. Running time: 60 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> William Shatner, Ben Folds, Margo Sappington, Henry Rollins, Michael Pink, Elizabeth Shatner.