If the premiere of I Am Heath Ledger (on the Spike network, no less) has you champing at the bit for some cinematically presented scoop on the celebrated actor's 2008 death, then stop right there. This movie isn't for you.
Instead, Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray's intimate portrait of an actor gone far too soon takes great care to provide access (including some truly compelling self-shot footage from the prolifically creative actor's personal archives) without crumbling into the TMZ-ified lore surrounding one of Heath Ledger's most iconic roles, the Joker. Retroactively diagnosing an actor based on his creative output is not the work of a fan, nor is it the work of I Am Heath Ledger.
Simply put, this is a movie for fans, not voyeurs. And while some may argue that the documentary's handling of Ledger's death is too cursory for the format, I would argue that its reluctance to retroactively diagnose—even with valuable insight from Ben Harper, Ang Lee, and Naomi Watts—is actually its greatest strength. After all, Ledger himself was clearly disinterested in maintaining any semblance of a public image, at least in the traditional leading man sense. Ledger followed his creative instincts wherever they took him, even if that meant a complete and total detour, and this documentary mimics that path.
The dedication here to the presentation of Ledger as an artist, thus bigger than the fame and press-crafted image that sometimes preceded him, is immediately apparent in the film's opening scene. "Hello, we're gonna go on a mission right now," Ledger, filming himself, tells us at the very beginning. "Will you come with me?" Of course we did. Of course we will. For Ledger, described here as the "most alive human," that journey started as a child. His parents, siblings, and childhood friends joyfully recall a young Heath intent on both making creative contributions as an actor, and eschewing the traditional educational route in favor of traveling his home of Australia as he saw fit.
As the global embrace of Ledger as a leading man started to catch fire with the success of 10 Things I Hate About You's modern Shakespeare vibes in 1999, we learn that he was immediately adamant with his efforts to push back against Hollywood's attempt at typecasting him in similar rom-coms, displaying a punk-rock-as-all-fuck mix of charm and foresight. And it was that foresight, inarguably, that propelled Ledger into more challenging work that greater served his artistic leanings.
I Am Heath Ledger, to an assumed thumbs-up from fans, manages to paint this journey as inevitable by spending as little time as possible on the more Googleable aspects of Ledger's life. So, if you're just here for the tabloid moments and aren't already fairly familiar with Ledger's story, then you should probably stick to Wikipedia. This movie, again, probably wasn't made with you in mind.
Eventually, after everything from a perspective-altering private jet ride with Mel Gibson during Patriot production to his revelatory performance alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, Ledger's artistic pursuit led to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight. Building on the self-described "clinched fist" soul of Brokeback Mountain character Ennis del Mar, Ledger’s interpretation of Joker was quickly added to the method acting canon previously inhabited by fellow greats like Marlon Brando.
The documentary wisely saves its Joker material for later in the film, and—for the most part—treats the role as one of many feats in Ledger's career instead of further crystallizing it as his magnum opus.
"Finding his voice is very important, because when you find the voice, you find the breath within the voice," Ledger says via narration of diving into preparations for the role, which would land him a posthumous Academy Award and Golden Globe.
Ledger, too, found a voice as an artist—not simply an actor, or tabloid fodder, or a heartthrob. And with I Am Heath Ledger, fans of the late artist can revel in his unbroken loyalty to a lifestyle of creativity and community, no voyeurs allowed.
I Am Heath Ledger airs on Spike May 17 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.