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Josh Reviews Jodorowsky’s Dune

September 22nd, 2014

The history of the movies is filled with wonderfully intriguing projects that never got made.  A few years back I wrote about the wonderful documentary Lost in La Mancha, which told the tale of Terry Gilliam’s failed attempt at making a Don Quixote film starring Johnny Depp.  (That project collapsed a few days into filming.)  Now, another great documentary has come along to explore another tantalizing Hollywood what-if story.

Back in 1975, director Alejando Jodorowsky got the rights to adapt Frank Hebert’s Dune.  Dune is, in my opinion, one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time, a fascinatingly complex epic about religion and politics and ecology.  Mr. Jodorowsky spent two years developing the film adaptation, working with such talents as H.R. Giger and Jean Giraud (the French illustrator known as Moebius) on the designs, and with a cast lined up that included Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine, and Mick Jagger.  Mr. Jodorowsky and his team created a phone-book sized volume containing lavishly-illustrated storyboards for the entire epic film that they planned to create.  Sadly, just before filming on the project was scheduled to commence, the financing fell through and the film collapsed.  Several years later, Dino De Laurentiis acquired the rights, resulting in the 1984 Dune film directed by a young David Lynch.

That film, while entertaining, is deeply flawed and a poor adaptation of Mr. Herbert’s great novel.  For decades, sci-fi fans have wondered just what sort of film Mr. Jodorowsky might have made from the material.  This richly detailed and engrossing documentary by Frank Pavich explores that question.  Mr. Pavich has assembled an impressively deep array of interviews to tell the story of this film-that-might-have-been.  We hear from so many of the men and women who were involved in the production, including producer Michel Seydoux; designers and phenomenal talents H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Chris Foss; we hear from other filmmakers such as director Nicholas Winding Refn and Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz; and we hear from some film-critics such as Devin Faraci and Drew McWeeny (both of whom are wonderful on-line writers whose work I link to often) who help give context to the story.

But the main story-teller of this documentary film is Alejandro Jodorowsky himself.  Mr. Jodrowsky’s is the main voice of the film, and as the movie progresses we hear him tell, in his own words and in incredible detail, the story of the Dune film that he had planned.  We hear what attracted him to the story of Dune and what sort of film he hoped to create.  We hear of his enormous ambition to create a film with a strong spiritual message, one that would affect audiences powerfully.  Mr. Jodorowsky walks us through the entire creative process as he assembled his design team, as he began casting, as he began envisioning the music for the film (which would have involved many disparate musical styles, including the work of the band Pink Floyd!).  And, finally, we hear from Mr. Jodorowsky about how it all fell apart.

I will be honest that, while I had of course heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky before seeing this documentary, I have never seen any of his films.  But over the course of this film I sort of fell in love with this crazy, visionary Chilean-French filmmaker.  Listening to Mr. Jodorowsky speak is a delight.  Even now, at his advanced years, he is so filled with passion and creative energy that it is astounding.  It’s huge fun listening to him talk, and the greatest joy of this film is spending two hours basically listening to Mr. Jodorowsky tell you all about the movie he dreamed of making back in 1975.

But this film doesn’t just let Mr. Jodorowsky’s words (or the words of the other interview subjects) tell the story.  The film relies extensively on the wonderful designs that Mr. Jodorowsky and his team had created and included in their phone-book-sized “pitch book” that they sent out to studios, hoping to attract interest in the film.  As the story of Mr. Jodorowsky’s work on the film unfolds, we can constantly see the astounding imagery that he and his collaborators planned to achieve on screen.  But the film goes even one step beyond that.  Using the story-boards illustrated by Moebius and others, the filmmakers have animated those images together to bring to life several critical sequences from the planned film, so we can actually see how this film might have looked and felt.  It’s incredible.  Having watched quite a number of DVD extras and “making-of” special features, this feels like an elaborate “pre-biz” for Jodorowsky’s Dune adaptation (though that’s of course not a term they ever would have used back then).  It’s an incredible glimpse into what this film would have been.  It also shows just how thoroughly Mr. Jodorowsky and his team had gotten in their pre-production.  As several of the interview subjects say in the film, they had basically make the film, they just never got the chance to film it.

(I’ll also add, as an aside, that these segments of animated storyboards are just the most eye-catching example of what a well-made documentary this film is.  I just the other week watched a particularly flimsy documentary, the Calvin & Hobbes film Dear Mr. Watterson, and it’s refreshing to be reminded of what a truly professional, high-level documentary film looks like.)

As intrigued as I was by this elaborate peek at the film that Aejandro Jodorowsky might have made, there’s of course no way of knowing whether, in the end, he would have been more successful than Lynch/de Laurentiis in bringing Frank Herbert’s epic and often-impenetrable book to the screen.  As impressed as I was, watching this documentary, by the passion and creative energy of Mr. Jodorowsky, I am not sure that all of his wild ideas would have resulted in a film that I would have enjoyed, let alone one that I would have felt was a great adaptation of Mr. Herbert’s book which I so dearly love.  I don’t want to stand here and state definitively that Mr. Jodorowsky would have been able to make the great Dune film that I would someday love to see.  In my mind, that is not the point of this documentary, nor was that the focus of my reaction to the film.

I find it heartbreaking any time an artist struggles to create something and then (for whatever reason), fails to do so.  That Mr. Jodorowsky was so passionate about this project, and that he and his collaborators produced such incredible, amazing work over the TWO YEARS they worked on the project, and then were unable to actually make the film, is incredibly sad.  Whether this would have been a great adaptation of Dune or not, I wish Mr. Jodorowsky and his team had been able to bring their dream to fruition.  There is no doubt that the result would have been something incredible and unique.

Jodowowsky’s Dune film was never made, but Jodorowsky’s Dune brings us as close as we will ever get to experiencing what that film would have been.  It was a thrill.

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