This Review Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2009's William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet directed by Pat Buckley, Bobby Ciraldo, Kevin Layne, and Andrew Swant.
Elkin: When you think of the music of William Shatner, I’m pretty sure that your head is flooded with his plaintiff cry, “Hey, Mr. Tamborine Man!” Captain Kirk was not a song and dance man, T.J. Hooker no hoofer. Shatner’s musical output was a joke, becoming the fodder for hipster cool sound mixes that you play before your girlfriend’s performance piece of crushing depth to which you smugly smile and turn to your friend who too knows how cool it is to be ironically derisive, something you will post on your Tumblr later in the evening as you twirl your mustache and sip your artisan tea.
And Shatner knew this. And he played it for what it was worth. And he conned you out of your pennies all the while turning the joke back on you.
But maybe, just maybe, there is more depth to William Shatner than you knew. Maybe Shatner was more human than you could ever aspire to be. And maybe other people realized it and, in a non-ironic, non-derisive way, wanted to celebrate that.
And thus we have this week’s subject for Convenient Truths.
The poorly titled William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet is a 2009 film which explores the creation of choreographer Margo Sappington’s ballet called Common People. Common People is set to the music from William Shatner’s 2004 album Has Been which he recorded with Ben Folds and featured guest appearances by Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins, and Adrian Belew.
The story goes that Sappington heard Shatner being interviewed on NPR about his album and was so intrigued by his earnestness and his “everyman-ness” that she went out, bought the album, and then realized she wanted to make a ballet out of it. She called Shatner, told him her idea, and he responded, “It can’t possibly turn out bad.”
The 60 minute film features interviews with Shatner, Sappington, Ben Folds, Henry Rollins, and Michael Pink, the Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Ballet. It also features behind-the-scene moments from the making of Has Been, as well as footage of the actual ballet Sappington choreographed.
And it all works. And it is all beautiful. And it is all celebratory. It is dance, it is music, it is us, and I loved just about every moment of this film.
Sacks: One of the great experiences I had at last year's Comic-con was when I had the opportunity to interview William Shatner. He was doing publicity for a documentary on the Epix channel - not this documentary but one I hope we can get to eventually – and it was a truly memorable conversation. Shatner was so affable, so interesting and so sincere that I instantly liked the man.
There's a fascinating sort of openness in William Shatner that comes from being at a certain point in your life, with a certain amount of success in the past and contentment in the present. He seems a truly happy man, a man confident with his legacy and legitimately curious and thoroughly engaged in the world around him.
And as you said, Elkin, this documentary captures exactly that spirit and energy in Shatner, this wonderful directness and questing that gives him a wide-open view of what is possible as a creative person, this chance to really explore different areas in the ways that a person can create work that is meaningful to him.
It's a wonderful documentary because Shatner's energy and honesty is almost infectious. There's an almost palpable glee in Margo Sappington’s eyes when she talks about the ballet that Shatner inspired, an energy and excitement that she gets to explore such a unique work in such a distinctive way. And Sappington creates a ballet based on Shatner's work that's intriguing and weird and tremendously moving. I'm no fan of ballet, but I was intrigued by the creative process involved in creating this ballet and in the way that the whole project comes together in such a fascinating way. "Celebratory" is a great word for it, Elkin.
If this ballet came to Northern California, Elkin, how fast would you buy tickets?
Elkin: In a heartbeat, Sacks, or maybe even less.
Because it’s so easy to get dragged into the mud, isn’t it, my friend? We are constantly walled off from each other as we are hand-dipped into our personal tragedies and petty desires and self-righteousness. There’s unemployment and divorce and financial instability. There’s cancer and madness and a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Each of our days can be so full of the garbage we encounter the moment we walk out our doors and into the world, the world of other people, that we sneer and connive and disassemble and seethe. And we do so because we forget.
We forget that the reality of the situation is, for better or for worse, that we are all in this together. My human problems are your human problems are her human problems are his. There is, like it or not, “a commonality of experience.” And this little gem, this little koan, this little sentiment is behind the semen stained velvet curtain we wrap ourselves in as we get through our days. It is the underlie, the truth, the necessity we need to survive.
And Shatner knows this. And Sappington knows this. And through Common People, they not only remind us of this, they celebrate it – fully and about as fucking viscerally as they can.
You say you are no fan of ballet, Sacks. I wonder how you responded to what Shatner said about it, that ballet “has the same distillation that poetry has. It’s the distillation of line. The beauty of the human form. The grace of a human line. And once you see it you are forever fulfilled by it.” How did you respond to Sappington calling it an “ephemeral art form that is so immediate to the human soul, the human psyche”?
Because I agree with them. Dance, even more so than music, is the truly universal language. And somehow the illogical collision of Shatner and Sappington reminded me of that. William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet reminded me that even in the depth of despair, even while I wallow in the sty of my own disappointments and tragedy, there is the beauty of our cohesive humanity that has to be celebrated over and over again if we ever have any desire to get out of bed again.
And that’s what this ballet is – it is that celebration, an undulating physical moment to moment celebration of connection and community. Shatner says that when putting his album together he was after the universality of “I understand that experience,” and by the Great Goat in the Sky, I swear to you that he accomplished this, and this film gives that to us.
Sure there are some flaws in the film, some of the camera “tricks” are quite distracting for example, but ultimately it is about movement and color and experience and celebration – and given the title of the film and the players it features, who wouldda thunk that?
Sacks: Wow, my friend, that's beautiful.
One of the biggest problems I often struggle with is the problem of getting outside of my own head. I have a terrible tendency to get bogged down in the tasks that I'm working on and in the problems or thoughts that I'm having. I put blinders on, ignoring things that are on the periphery of my vision that will make my life happier just in the cause of Getting Things Done. Dishes have to be washed, laundry has to be folded, a review has to be written, a client needs an email. a column has to be posted, and the list goes on and on. I often feel like I'm on the run 24/7, ignoring the events around me, pounding through events rather than taking my time and enjoying the events.
I've learned a few things from living like this. One is that it's kind of unsustainable. I'm trapped on a treadmill that will never end. Things will continue to go around and around and never stop and before I know it I'll be 60 years old and I'll be able to say that I have a clean house, but what will that bring me, really?
But secondly, and maybe much more importantly, that sort of outlook puts me out on an island, alone with my tasks. People become objects or tasks to be managed and completed, rather than fellow people with whom I can enjoy a connection, share life experiences, and get a different perspective on my life.
Shatner has a different perspective. He's direct and honest and focused on the things that really bring him joy. The wonderful song Shatner wrote about his everyday love for his wife was beautiful because it was honest and direct and so completely from the heart that no level of cynicism or postmodern hipster mocking will take away from that. He's real. His emotions are true to him.
And in a world full of stars like Kim Kardasian and Justin Bieber whose favorite people stare at them in the mirror each morning, Shatner has a world outside of himself. He is open and positive and doesn't fear jumping into new challenges.
I'm always taken aback by people who are completely direct. That's one reason why Don McGregor has become so special to me. His honesty is right there on the surface; direct, real and personal. He's not walled behind a corporate identity or some sort of public face. Who he presents himself as being is who he is. William Shatner is like the wonderful McGregor – he has no artifice at this point in his life. He is just who he seems to be on the surface – a man who enjoys his life and is always ready for the next experience, even embracing a ballet based on a CD he recorded.
I loved the idea that dance is a universal language, a kind of physical poetry that expresses raw and unfiltered human emotions through the brilliance of human movement. I'm really only not a fan of poetry because I haven't been exposed to it much – actually in much the same way that someone who has never read comics might not quite be sure how to react to The Nao of Brown or some other great graphic novel. But I responded to the honesty of the work, to its lack of artifice. Maybe that surprised me the most. I was expecting to not really "get" the ballet but in fact the exact opposite happened. I loved the ballet.
Yeah, despite the terrible title, William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet was a moving, fascinating, wonderful documentary that did exactly what art is supposed to do. It really shook me up.
Elkin: I hear you, Sacks, loud and clear. I too have heard that clarion call that makes a person realize his or her life has so easily become a problem to be solved and a conflict to be avoided. In the film, Shatner calls the story of our lives “interconnected dots of decision.” He talks about how we so often make decisions “constantly filled with the apprehension that we don’t know what we are doing.” He ends this conversation, though, with a line that we all know but seldom heed, “You gotta forgive yourself.”
Sage words indeed.
Every decision we make is one that leads us to where we are, who we are with, what we are doing. That’s something to celebrate, in a way, because it is within these decisions that our power over our lives resides. Sure, for some, this can lead to an existential crisis, but it can also lead to an endless well of hope and a gas tank full of possibilities. Sometimes it takes a guy like William Shatner to remind us of this. Sometimes it takes a universal language to speak these truths. Shatner’s insights, Sappington’s ballet, this film – they awaken us to ourselves, and through that to each other.
William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet is a celebratory film of the highest order. It makes you feel good to be part of this thing that is all so much larger than our own little bags of water and meat. It is a dance of, for, and by all of us.
Do yourself a favor. Make the decision to fire up the Netflix and let this one into your life.
And don’t forget to dance.
Trailer for the film:
A performance clip from the film: