Thursday, April 20, 2017

Documentary Review: For the Love of Spock

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

For the Love of Spock
Written and directed by Adam Nimoy
455 Films / FilmRise / Gravitas Ventures / MVD Visual
111 minutes, 2016

As I am assuming is true with most people other than die-hard trekkers who are bulletin-boarded to the pulse of all things Star Trek, I first heard about this documentary about Leonard Nimoy, the Prime (first) Spock, from an episode of Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon is interviewed by Leonard’s son, the director Adam Nimoy.

As for Spock and Leonard, I was 11 years old when “Star Trek” first started playing on television. Even though I missed the second season due to being banned from TV for a year thanks to lipping off at my dad, of course over the years I caught up to all the episodes. Back when they were first run, and I was a pipsqueak, I didn’t realize the social implications of the stories (e.g., “I am black on the right side… Lokai is white on the right side. All of his people are white on the right side!” from the “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode), so it was just as enjoyable a sci-fi show as “Lost in Space.” By my mid-teens, I knew better (but still liked both shows).

In 1972, thanks to then-new pal Bernie Kugel, we went to the very first Star Trek convention, held at the Hotel Pennsylvania (then known as the Statler Hotel). The doors were late opening and there was a larger crowd than expected by the organizers jammed in together at the ballroom door, testily held waiting. Bernie, being Bernie, out of nowhere and with lack of context (i.e., bored) turned to me and in a loud voice said, “What do you mean, ‘Nimoy, who?!’” I could see the heads of people turning in my direction with daggers. There was no harm, but I did get sharp glances the whole day. Now I’m completely amused by it, and Bernie remains Bernie and a BFF, I’m happy to say, and yes I still have the convention’s program in a box somewhere.

So, the point is that when I heard about this documentary on Nimoy was in the works, it made me happy. And now I get the chance to review it!

As the film starts, the launching point is Nimoy’s death in 2015, and works its way back to the beginning. A key component is the director placing himself into the story. I find this doesn’t always work in other films, as it tends to misdirect the attention away from the subject in an egotistical way (much like the beginning of this review), but in this case, Leonard is not just a subject that the director is focused on, being his son he is integrated into the story, and so it works.

The early part delves into the start of Nimoy’s career rather than his childhood (a good move), which includes an interview with his brother. Funny thing is, his brother bears a strong resemblance to his Spock friendemy, Dr. McCoy/DeForest Kelley. Most of the family, in fact is represented here, including Adam’s sister (though not Leonard’s widow/second wife).

Y’know, I’m not gonna go into super detail here, because even at nearly two hours, this kept my interest throughout, except for the exceptionally long list of Kickstarter contributors during the final credits, because I have a life, but it still made me smile knowing that so many people wanted to be involved with this project (i.e., hundreds of names).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This incredibly inclusive film has tons of interviews, with previous cast members, writers, etc., of various “Star Trek”/Star Trek releases, from the television shows (including William Shatner, George Takei [aka the great Mr. Meme], Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig) and films (such as Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg and of course Zachary Quinto). There’s also Jason Alexander, who is apparently a “Star Trek” expert!

There are lots of film clips, from public and private speaking engagements, and conventions (including by fans and cos-players). The production also wisely alternatives between the linear and themes, so we learn about how the iconic “Spockisms” came about, such as the eyebrow-raise, the Vulcan neck pinch, the mind meld, and of course the “Live long and prosper” Vee symbol. Also, Adam nicely mixes information of Nimoy the actor and Spock the character, showing how they intertwined.

There is room for another documentary here on things that were mentioned in passing, including his music career, his books (e.g., I am Not Spock; I am Spock; collections of poetry), his photography art (some of his images are shown, but as they are not Spock related, and due to time I’m sure, they are merely glanced upon, again rightfully so).

Personal information about the Nimoys abound that I did not know, such as Leonard being an alcoholic and a sometimes absent father, but by having a gentle and personal touch, Adam makes him out to be a human rather than a monster (see Mommy Dearest, for example of the latter), and is also willing to take some of the distancing between them upon himself.

While Shatner is the central character and lovingly ribbed in modern culture for his line delivery, Spock is arguable the most influential of the roles from the original program, and I certainly believed the most beloved due to his part-alien/part human “Other” nature. This is also well touched on in the documentary, as is his stimulus on some people in the present NASA space program and the likes of scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson (who also appears here).

Extras are legion here, starting with the basic chapters and captioning in multiple languages. Then there are the featurettes. It starts off with the 28:37 “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston,” also produced and directed by Adam. It had been recorded for PBS as part of a series. It’s a really fine annotation to the feature film, because where the main documentary is a bit shy of early pre-Leonard history, this certainly makes up for it in an interesting way. We follow Adam and Leonard as they walk around the city, especially the West End where Leonard was raised, and we see the before neighborhood through pictures, and the after of the urban renewal that just about wiped out the entire area. It’s both a great autobiographical history as well as a lesson on the culture of Boston and what happens when the government uses eminent domain, as New York and Robert Moses did with large sections of the southern Bronx. It was shot four months before Leonard passed.

Next is the 9:15 short “On the Set of ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” which intertwines the post-mortem-Leonard appearance of Adam on the television show. Interviewed are the cast and crew who discuss not only Adam’s role, but the influence of Leonard/Spock on the series writ large. Continuing this theme is the 15:25 “Tribeca Panel,” where Adam, Quinto, “Access Hollywood” producer Scott Mantz and the Nimoy film's executive producer David Zappone appeared for questions at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 after the showing of the documentary. Then there is a 4:24 “Trivia Time with Jason Alexander,” a fun piece of fluff as he answers trivia questions about all things “Trek” from both television and film versions (though mostly the original series).

The 5:54 “Kickstarter Gallery” is a series of pictures of people who contributed to the campaign. Following this are two trailers, for the Tribeca Festival and the Theatrical one. Last is the full-feature-length commentary by Adam, Zappone, and Mantz. It is one of the better commentaries I’ve heard in a while. The three participants are respectful of each other and the topic at hand, never talking over each other or trying to showboat, they discuss anecdotes about both the film and the original television show, talk about the personalities of the actors on the set, and little known trivia (outside of Trekkers, of course).

As a side note, I was noticing how much Leonard looked like David Bowie towards the end of Nimoy’s life, and how one of the songs over the final credits is Bowie’s “Spaceman.”

Adam did an amazing job with this “Spock doc,” as he calls it in the commentary, keeping the interest of the viewer by not sticking on a single style of theme, yet keeping it cohesive and sensible.

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