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Sundance Film Review: ‘To Be Takei’

Jennifer Kroot's documentary deftly showcases the many roles played by George Takei.

With:

George Takei, Brad Takei, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Howard Stern, Dan Savage, Daniel Inouye, B.D. Wong.

A unique blend of camp and conviction, “To Be Takei” deftly showcases George Takei’s eclectic personality and wildly disparate achievements, from “Star Trek” crewmate to gay-rights activist. Arguably more famous as himself than he was as Sulu, Takei goes from Comic-Con conventions to Congressional hearings, with stints as Howard Stern’s announcer in between. As with her delirious 2009 documentary “It Came From Kuchar,” director Jennifer Kroot grants her subject’s past and present endeavors equal vitality, effortlessly jumping backward and forward, and creating an alternate continuity that owes little to straight-ahead chronology. Results should wow auds of various persuasions.

Kroot’s task is simplified by the fact that Takei’s activities at any given point incorporate earlier incarnations. On the simplest level, his role as Sulu in the original “Star Trek” TV series leads to his reprisal of the part on the bigscreen. Kroot briefly interviews fellow cast members, including a typically phlegmatic Leonard Nimoy and considerably more enthusiastic cohorts Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig. But by far the most amusing moments arise from William Shatner’s denial of friendship with Takei and his obvious discomfort with Takei’s homosexuality. It’s unclear whether it was Takei’s or Kroot’s idea to interpolate a veritable gallery of pornographic Internet artwork imagining Shatner and Nimoy locked in homoerotic clinches.

On a deeper level, Takei’s childhood years in desolate internment camps during WWII and his family’s loss of their home, business and savings (Kroot supplies archival photos of the prison-like barracks and the hateful graffiti greeting Japanese-Americans upon their release) becomes the topic of Takei’s college lectures, his testimony before Congressional redress committees and a Broadway-bound musical called “Allegiance.” Likewise, his crusade for ethnic equality fuels his fight for gay rights after he triumphantly emerges from the closet in 2005. Ever one for self-reinvention, he now sees his Facebook followers numbering in the millions.

Although Kroot structures her film around Takei, her focus is dual: Takei’s partner of 25 years, Brad Altman (or “Brad Takei,” as he has been known since their marriage, introduced as such in the opening credits) shows up in virtually every scene. A complementary part of Takei’s private and professional life (George as idealist, Brad as pragmatic worrier), he helps to give the picture its peculiar give-and-take rhythm. Thus Takei’s gigs at Comic-Con, where he signs autographs at $35 a pop, represent anything but a sad comedown, functioning instead as an object lesson in relationship interdependence: Acknowledging the camera, stage manager Brad sheepishly stuffs bills into his fanny pack, leaving a smiling George to exude charm to faithful fans.

Throughout, Kroot blends in a plethora of well-chosen clips from Takei’s neverending career, from his first, promising TV appearance on the prestigious “Playhouse 90” (in an episode entitled “Made in Japan”) to his less expansive if not downright stereotypical movie roles in “Green Berets” or “Which Way to the Front,” as well as smallscreen standbys like “Perry Mason” or “Mission: Impossible.” Paradoxically, his career really caught fire after he came out, with guest shots on “Will and Grace,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Apprentice”; famously, he and Brad pioneered same-sex coupling on “The Newlywed Game.”  For sheer entertainment, however, nothing can top Kroot’s inclusion of campy “Star Trek” excerpts as Takei, impressively bare-chested, manically wields a fencing foil or fearfully edges away from an alien femme fatale bent on seduction.

Sundance Film Review: 'To Be Takei'

Reviewed at Technicolor, New York, Jan. 13, 2014. (In Sundance Film Festival — Documentary Premieres.) Running time: 93 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary) A Rainbow Shooting Star Pictures production.  Produced by Gerry Kim, Mayuran Tiruchelvam, Jennifer Kroot, Tina Kroot.

Crew:

Directed, written by Jennifer Kroot. Co-director, Bill Weber. Camera (color, HD), Chris Million; editor, Weber; music, Michael Hearst; sound, Lora Hirschberg; animation and design, Grant Nellessen.

With:

George Takei, Brad Takei, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Howard Stern, Dan Savage, Daniel Inouye, B.D. Wong.

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