From “Back to the Future” to “Star Wars,” scour the most iconic hand-painted movie posters of the past half-century, and you’re likely to find Drew Struzan’s lower-case signature tastefully affixed to the images that set moviegoers’ expectations alight long before the projectors roll. In “Drew: The Man Behind the Poster,” the Norman Rockwell of movie advertising steps in front of the camera for a long-overdue celebration sure to delight fans and heighten awareness of his legacy. While this overly group-huggy docu’s theatrical life seems awfully limited, discs of the limited release could become as collectible as the maestro’s work.
Whereas other docus strive to maximize the advantages of 16:9 TV screens, “Drew” is the rare film that makes you wish that aspect ratio were turned on its side in order to do justice to the soft-spoken artist’s impressive oeuvre. By working closely with his subject and the roster of A-listers who have benefited from his brush (George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Michael J. Fox, Thomas Jane, etc.), director Erik Sharkey emerges with a predictably hagiographic portrait — albeit one very much in keeping with Struzan’s flattering style, which imbued even the dodgiest pics with a virtually incandescent quality that makes eyes twinkle, skin shine and tacky ’80s movies look hilarious.
Struzan’s best paintings weren’t necessarily for the biggest hits (full disclosure: this critic owns a comp he did for Bo Derek’s ill-fated “Tarzan the Ape Man,” an unused beauty infinitely better than the film itself), though Sharkey does his best to balance Gen-Xers’ appetite for “Star Wars,” Indiana Jones and “The Goonies” with memorable pieces for more forgettable pics, like “Adventures in Babysitting” and the “Police Academy” series. At times, Struzan’s misgivings about rush jobs (for John Carpenter’s “The Thing”) and compromised commissions (“Big Trouble in Little China”) creep through, though the film ruthlessly tries to overwhelm the artist’s humility with the enthusiasm of his fans, whose adoration he experiences firsthand at 2011’s San Diego Comic-Con.
What little conflict the film presents centers around the beginning and end of Struzan’s career. During the low-income early days, the starving art-school student was at odds with his parents and unable to afford classes, though the situation was swiftly alleviated by meeting his soul mate, Dylan, and landing work illustrating album covers for the likes of Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper. In short order, Struzan went from making $5,000 a year to earning $50,000 a job by partnering with movie-advertising pioneer Tony Seineger (an innovator deserving of his own docu).
The lingering challenge of Struzan’s career has been the battle between hand-rendered promotional materials and the slapdash PhotoShop treatments that pass as movie posters today — frustrations that ultimately drove the artist to retire. While it will no doubt excite cineastes to see Struzan touring the halls of Lucasfilm or recalling a conversation with Jim Henson about how his paintings made the Muppets look alive, glimpses of Struzan’s later work (which include portraits of his family and female nudes) drive home how much our enthusiasm for his output is tied up in the underlying properties — which have expanded to include Harry Potter, Hellboy and “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Of course, Struzan was fortunate to have earned Spielberg and Lucas’ patronage, though such directors also benefited enormously from the way his paintings positioned the mythical worlds they created — an idea inarticulately phrased by Harrison Ford, cornered at the “Extraordinary Measures” junket, who stammers, “It’s enormously valuable to the selling of the movies that I’m in,” but seems genuinely humbled to meet the artist. Sharkey spent years collecting interviews for the documentary, and the talking points complement one another nicely amid generic-sounding music that pales next to the movie themes that can be called to mind as easily as Struzan’s art.
A recurring theme among Struzan’s genuinely awestruck admirers is the fact that the illustrator — a man who put the “art” in “key art” — inspired them to elevate their own craft. “We’ve had to live up to Drew’s art,” admits Spielberg, while Darabont gushes, “The idea of having Drew Struzan do your poster is almost worth making a movie just for that.” Surely Sharkey would agree. The director commissioned Struzan to paint the one-sheet for his debut, “Sexina: Popstar P.I.,” and while this sophomore effort is no masterpiece, it’s far more deserving of Struzan’s talent.