Australian biographical filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson turns his camera on Antipodean pop prodigy Ben Lee in the enjoyable but strictly-for-the-fans docu “Catch My Disease.” The third nonfiction effort directed by the helmer (whose feature “Hail” is slated for Venice), “Catch” offers a potpourri of often dazzling visual styles that fail to compensate for a lack of narrative focus. Docu covers all the bases on this apparently self-obsessed if likable musician — including interviews with several of his high-profile friends — but barely scratches the polished surface. Pic is more likely to screen on iPods than at fests or on cable channels.
Through a combo of determination, beginner’s luck and undeniable talent, Lee became a late-1990s pop-music phenomenon while fronting Oz teen band “Noise Addict.” Picked up for international distribution after Beastie Boy Mike D heard a demo tape, the precocious Lee quickly parlayed his newfound fame into a solo career.
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Thanks to either the digital age or Lee’s ability to be centerstage whenever cameras are around, the docu brims with archival footage of him performing; in everything from sparsely attended early gigs at Bondi Beach to family gatherings and TV interviews, Lee is presented as always “on.” Inserts from Tony McNamara’s comedy “The Rage in Placid Lake” even create the deceptive impression that the character Lee played in the film, his sole acting gig, was based on his own life.
While the archival material creates a solid base, Courtin-Wilson strengthens the film’s thrust by interviewing Lee’s famous friends, including Winona Ryder, Jason Schwartzman and, most prominently, his ex-lover Claire Danes as they describe the rise of this elfin Jewish boy from Oz whose music infiltrated pop charts and movie soundtracks.
Eleven years in the making, “Catch My Disease” follows Lee from Sydney to New York, until the pic suddenly jerks from past to present tense, creating the feeling of a time lapse. Of the unseen period, Lee says he hit the spiritual rocks when his relationship with Danes ended, his father died and the Sept. 11 attacks all happened within a two-month period, but little information is divulged about the precise impact of these events on his life. Post-crisis, Lee looks older, but as agreeable and as driven as before, as he follows a guru to India and finds love in the arms of actress Ione Skye.
Through it all, Lee’s music is only fleetingly showcased, and newcomers will be forgiven for wondering why his philosophical musings on the improbability of his fame are worthy of an 86-minute docu.
Courtin-Wilson’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach is more visually daring than his compelling previous docus, “Bastardy” (about an Aboriginal thesp turned cat burglar) and “Chasing Buddha” (about a feisty feminist monk), but eventually the stylistic embellishments feel too eclectic and experimental for the pic’s own good. Helmer doodles with his camera, creating images of beauty and curiosity but little import. The juxtaposition of Lee’s stay at an Indian commune and shots of his bar mitzvah suggests some editorial comment on the musician’s mysticism, but numerous montage experiments seem so random that any intended viewpoint may be accidental.