Within the subgenre of cinema-focused documentaries, producers rarely get the glowing spotlight treatment that directors and actors routinely do: They tend to be treated in film studies as money men, as vital and pragmatic enablers of art, but not as figures of artistry or mystique in themselves. Mark Cousins’ “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas” is a novel exception, elevating its veteran subject — the producer of multiple works by such celebrated filmmakers as Bernardo Bertolucci, Nicolas Roeg, David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike — to the same plane as those auteurs, probing the reckless, poetic, not especially commercial sensibility that guides Thomas’ choices of films and artists to shepherd. A man who brings to fruition such projects as beautiful or boundary-pushing as “Crash,” “Bad Timing” and the Oscar-sweeping “The Last Emperor,” Cousins rightly reckons, is bringing more than just financing to the table.
That “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas” makes its case for the 72-year-old producer with extravagant, slightly purple reverence rather than a drier, more scholarly eye won’t come as a surprise to those familiar with the oeuvre of Cousins, the Northern Irish film writer and documentarian whose garrulous, wide-eyed passion for all aspects of the medium has become his creative signature. This is a more contained, less consequential work than his “Story of Film” series — the latest of which, “A New Generation,” premiered alongside “Storms” at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival — but equally defined by his distinctive, intuitive voiceover, which tends to elide biographical detail for more subjective, emotive responses to the work at hand. That approach, in this case, proves better suited to viewers already au fait with Thomas’ career and legacy. Those seeking a more informative rundown of his place and trajectory in the industry, or indeed the role of the producer in general, may find themselves frustrated by Cousins’ idiosyncrasies. Further festivals await; many distributors may deem it too niche a prospect.
Cousins’ introductory narration sets the fanciful tone straight away, presenting Thomas as a “prince born into a film world” — a fairy-tale metaphor that the film sustains to the end, despite the producer’s own resistance to such whimsy in interviews. As Cousins joins Thomas on a five-day car trip from Britain to Cannes ahead of the 2019 festival (where Thomas would present the premiere of Miike’s “First Love”), the winding road movie that results gets some mileage out of their odd-couple dynamic: Cousins all boundless, gushing enthusiasm and Thomas a figure of softer, more serious reserve, though they’re united by their mutual investment in independent cinema and its survival. Along the way, they zig-zag through highlights from his career, expanding obliquely on such subjects as stardom, sexuality and automotive fixation (Thomas himself is a car fanatic) through the prism of his filmography — though their exchanges remain lightly conversational rather than analytical.
Thomas’ upbringing as a silver-spoon son of the British film industry — his father Ralph directed the popular “Doctor” comedy franchise, while his uncle Gerald directed numerous “Carry On” films — is touched upon, though it’s left for audiences to intuit how or why he was drawn away from such populist entertainment toward more experimental, artistic cinema. There’s surprisingly little in the way of anecdotal reflection on his career: The polite, reticent Thomas is evidently content for Cousins to lead the musings, often into figurative diversions that aren’t always as obvious to the viewer as they are to the filmmaker. (Per the title, we are promised a portrait of Thomas’ career as a series of electrical storms, though bar some literal parallels to Cannes rainfall, this intriguing conceit remains esoteric to the last.)
Recurring talking heads Tilda Swinton and Debra Winger (stars of Thomas-produced films “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “The Sheltering Sky,” respectively) are on Cousins’ wavelength, however, and contribute some endearing, colorfully hyperbolic tributes. According to Swinton, Thomas is nothing less than “a superhuman manifestation of cinema” itself. Still, the film could use a wider range of interviewees to broaden its scope and tone: Archival interview excerpts from Roeg and Bertolucci are welcome and rather too brief. (Oddly, particularly in light of Cousins’ recent, expansive “Women Make Film” project, Thomas’ one collaboration with a major female filmmaker — Agnes Varda’s “One Hundred and One Nights” — is never mentioned.) “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas” persuasively makes the case for closer scrutiny of a producer’s career, though it leaves viewers with some homework to do.