Release: 1st February 2016
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
The story follows Dennis Stock, who works at the Magnum Photos Agency and got an assignment to shoot rising Hollywood star James Dean, before the release of East of Eden. Friendship developed between them during the assignment, as the pair traveled from Los Angeles to New York to Indiana.
There is a moment in Anton Corbijn’s latest film when movie mogul Jack Warner says to a petulant James Dean; “Whatever’s gonna happen to you, isn’t going to happen by accident.” It seems like a throwaway comment, one placed there with the sole purpose of portraying just what a brilliant, helpful bastard Warner once was. With the snap of a finger, he could make or break a career. And in this instance, he held James Dean’s future hostage. There is more to this statement however, as here lies the core of Dean’s success; or at least how the film portrays it. If Life is to be believed, then James Dean was MADE famous, he didn’t do much work towards becoming so. It is a seemingly trivial point to mention, but one that somehow completely undercuts the emotional centre of the film. Life’s central ‘conflict’ is, in essence, one man’s inescapable road to superstardom (boo-hoo), and the other’s efforts to capitalise on that as quickly as possible before anyone else cottons on. Classy.
That, and some half-baked ideas about finding your inner artist, the death of cinema’s golden age and the birth of modern celebrity culture.
With a magical three films to his name, Dean died too soon but left a legacy of cultural significance. It would seem that the myth of James Dean is more interesting that the truth. Dennis Stock’s photo essay helped build a persona that, even today, has the sort of easy-going sex appeal cool that many celebrities yearn for. Life shows the journey to those moments, and the result is like watching a magic trick without the curtain. Corbijn and screenwriter Luke Davies leave us disenchanted and a tad deflated; like Dorothy in the Emerald City.
The film’s major struggle is that is finds too much fault with everyone except Dean, and in turn treats him like a reclusive genius instead of a man pursuing what he loved but fighting the demons it creates. At times it feels like no one really has control on the events unfolding. Is Dean knowingly leading Stock to greatness? Who does Stock really care about? Why does Warner never seem to follow through on his threats? Who is this film actually about? As an audience member, it is hard to decide if you care enough to see things through. So the experience is a very tepid one.
DeHaan is probably the main reason to see the film. Like Fassbender in Steve Jobs, he might not be a spot-on replica of the man he portrays, but there is something spiritual going on that feels like a channelling. When the inevitable – “see how we recreated that exact moment!?” – comes, you do feel the presence of Dean, but it is just a shame that the charisma the real man exuded is not matched. Pattison has the thankless role of gopher, running around trying to move the plot. For a character is supposedly on the brink of creative utopia, we get very little insight into the workings of his talent. The result is a grabby man-child. Stock must have been a pretty selfish person in real life, because if he wasn’t then he would be pissed about his portrayal here. Worst…father…ever.
Film Grade: C-
A cluster of short Interviews with the cast and crew do little to shed any light on the film or the process of its making. There are one or two crumbs of interest (DeHaan needed extra ear lobes for the role), but the only note worthy watch is that with Rodney Stock; son of Dennis. This little segment feels like an add-on, but it is probably more moving and tragic than anything in the film it accompanies.
Special Features Grade: C-
Corbijn loves loners. And for the most part, he makes movies about some pretty interesting ones. Life should have been the top dog in this list, but it ends up more as stray cat. There is a so-so dribble of cast interviews to pad out the DVD, making Life a missed opportunity.