Heath Ledger seemed to enjoy a charmed life, right up until his death from a drug overdose at the age of 28. The tragic finish inevitably casts a pall over his story, something “I Am Heath Ledger,” an intimate documentary drawing heavily on personal video and interviews, attempts to gloss over.
The intent, clearly, is to celebrate all that the young Australian accomplished in such a short time, from being cast in a U.S. TV show, “Roar,” while still in his teens to traveling to Los Angeles, where he quickly made his mark in a variety of roles.
Ledger also established his home as a sort-of haven and party central for other artists and especially fellow Aussies, who reminisce fondly about their good times there. Actor Ben Mendelsohn refers to the vibe as a “pre-‘Entourage’ type ‘Entourage’ house.”
The video Ledger captured of himself, which is liberally woven into the film, makes this an intense portrait that actually merits its title – up close and personal in ways that such biographies seldom are.
Yet filmmakers Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray’s access to that footage and to those close to Ledger – including his parents and sister, as well as associates and peers – results in such a hazy, adoring enterprise as to feel like a bit of whitewash. While the actor left behind several indelible roles – foremost among them “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Dark Knight,” whose Joker earned him a posthumous Academy Award – the movie engages in a bit of embroidery about his personal life and screen career while shortchanging other areas.
The movie deals only glancingly, for example, with Ledger’s discomfort with the trappings of fame, which he sought but, like so many performers, found onerous once he achieved it. “He wanted fame,” as one friend puts it. “And then when he got it, he didn’t want it.”
The only significant reference to the circumstances surrounding Ledger’s death in 2008, meanwhile, comes via his agent, Steve Alexander, who dismisses suggestions that the actor was particularly troubled, saying that while he had “demons,” he loved his life and wanted to be here.
“I Am Heath Ledger” is part of a rather ghoulish series of Spike documentaries devoted to famous people who died too young, among them “I Am JFK Jr.” Having premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, the project lands at the cable network en route to a digital/DVD release.
Ledger’s admirers will find a lot of memories rekindled, to be sure. But the movie is diluted, ultimately, by choosing to view its subject through such a gauzy lens.
“I Am Heath Ledger” will air May 17 at 10 p.m. on Spike.