Randall Wright’s meandering study of the iconic transatlantic artist David Hockney takes a curious approach to the documentary biopic. Replete with a wealth of fascinating archive footage, access to an impressive cast of his contemporaries and subjects, and suffused with a high-minded concern for questions of art and artist, the film’s strengths lay the groundwork for a fascinating piece of work. All too often, though, it loses all steam as a vehicle for thematic exploration and becomes a formless A-to-Z of Hockney’s career. Many of the film’s decisions seem acutely targeted at the middle-class middle-brow crowd, and so totally at odds with Hockney’s inventiveness and wit: its settling on the banal title Hockney, its near-complete lack of interest in the more lurid aspects of the Pop Art heyday, and its perplexing underuse of the man Hockney himself are all emblematic of the film’s disappointing unwillingness to let the art it explores consume it in form or function.
The work’s clearest forte is the pure level of research that has obviously gone into its collage of Hockney: 1960s interviews, modern talking heads, blocky Californian prints, grim Yorkshire terraces, intercut Picasso homages and more are weaved together in a continuous and consistent image of the artist. Now in his late seventies – along with most of the London and Venice Beach art sets dug up by Wright for the film – Hockney has aged out of his mannered effete style into an almost paternal figure. His rolling Bradford accent has deepened, his shock of blond whitened – but nothing has dampened in his inimitable ability to discuss wildly obtuse concepts of art theory with both intelligence and casualness. The film’s wide archival scope and attention to detail combine with Hockney’s hypnotic personality to create its best moments. At one point (a Sixties interview with one of his contemporaries, who explains Hockney’s capacity to force his audience to see the banal anew) cuts from the print being discussed – three unique-looking trees against an unnatural field of gold and azure – to real film footage of those exact trees, somehow located and captured for our comparison.
Hockney starts to disintegrate when it begins an attempt to approach its subject’s life as a straightforward documentary narrative. Several sequences feel underexplored or even box-ticking: we spend time with his endearingly archetypal sister back home in England, several models from his acclaimed portraits, and numerous New York art glitterati. There’s never, though, any sense Hockney is actually about any of these disparate worlds. One of the most enlightening talking heads, critic John Kasmin, explains Hockney’s true significance as an artist while really revealing the film’s major failing: synthesising British realist and American Pop Art influences in the mid-1960s places him as a key figure in the development of 20th Century popular art. This documentary, however, segments these influences in an effort to cover off its embarrassment of riches. The result is an often teleological effort to place Hockney at the centre of every development in American bohemian circles, from his beginnings in appropriately drab British working class settings, through apparently inevitable discovery of the New World and its exciting opportunities, to the horrors of the AIDS crisis, dalliances with the dance, opera, and television circuits, and everything in between. What should be striking as a vast and innovative body of work soon becomes tiresome, as we are given little time to digest, say, Hockney’s ideas on landscape portraiture before the idea is replaced by another vignette about the influence of his parents, of the Californian gay community, or of one charismatic companion or another.
A lack of direction could be forgiven in a more freewheeling art-centred film, but Hockney is remarkably restrained instead. Perhaps it’s another symptom of Wright’s effort to cram in so much content, but the crises in Hockney’s life are usually elided in favour of po-faced talking heads. We learn that he lost maybe two-thirds of his friends to AIDS, suffered other periods of depression, and there are other hints at bohemianism which are barely touched upon. It’s hard not to feel that this is a missed opportunity: in an atmosphere where ‘colourful’ is applied as adjective to anyone with the tiniest speck of eccentricity, it’s a word which would truly encapsulate David Hockney in all his paradoxical glory, both vaunted and iconoclastic, low culture and reified art. Despite its sophistication, the film Hockney lacks almost all of this colour though: worse than boorish could ever be, it’s safe.