Film Review: Ambitious Genius and a Touch of (Delightful) Madness in ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’

Chris Foss Design“What if (director) had made (film)?” is a favorite game for movie lovers. What if Stanley Kubrick had made Napoleon? What if David Lean had made Nostromo? What if Terry Gilliam had made Don Quixote (wait, he still may)?

One of the more intriguing what-ifs concerns Chilean-born filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who came to be known as “The Father of Midnight Movies” in the US after the late-night cult success of his surrealistic films El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). Jodorowsky (“Jodo” to his friends) was the toast of the town – he got $1 million and distribution for Mountain because Apple Corp’s Allen Klein was persuaded to do so after John Lennon saw and greatly liked El Topo. (The business relationship between Klein and Jodorowsky apparently soured soon thereafter; Klein basically kept the two films from public view here for 30 years.)

In 1975 at the urging of a friend Jodorowsky decided to adapt and film a story he’d never read: Frank Herbert’s 1965 epic science fiction classic “Dune”. Two years and millions of dollars later, with detailed production plans bound in a volume that would put the NYC phone directory to shame, a cast that boasted Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine and Salvador Dali alongside his 12-year-old son Brontis and planned music from Magma and Pink Floyd, it seemed cameras would soon roll. But the movie never got made, which is where the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which opens in Nashville Friday at Belcourt Theatre, comes in.

Alejandro JodorowskyDirector Frank Pavich is smart enough to know that Jodorowsky is the best thing about his documentary – he spent about three years around the very sprightly octogenarian (who turned 85 in February) and much of the work’s 88 minutes feature the outgoing genius who in addition to his cinematic contributions has made quite a name for himself in the comic book world as well as formulating his own healing system from various sources of inspiration.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t more to savor, not only from those who’ve known him best – like his son and Dune’s would-be producer Michel Seydoux, who is likely right when he says “You can’t have a masterpiece without madness” – but admirers like Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn and Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz. We also hear from those that worked on designing the great film that never was: Swiss artist extraordinaire H.R. Giger and his British colleague Chris Foss discuss their design contributions, as well as recordings made of comments from the late Dan O’Bannon, the American special effects whiz that later worked with Giger and fellow Dune “spiritual warrior” (to use Jodorowsky’s term) Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, the great French illustrator who died in 2012, on Alien. We also see breath-taking examples of their pre-production work, with some brought to startling life through the talent of Emmy-nominated animator Syd Garon.

While there is obvious disappointment that his Dune wasn’t filmed (though the claim that only $5 million was needed to finish financing for a lavish, huge-scale special-effects-laden feature that might well have run 10-14 hours seems unlikely even for the late 1970s), Jodorowsky doesn’t seem embittered by it – in fact he gleefully recounts how relieved he was when he viewed David Lynch’s 1984 take on the story and saw that it was “awful.” (Both he and Lynch have publicly blamed producers for that; Lynch has actually gone so far as to insist on the I-want-no-part-of-this “Alan Smithee” directing credit for some release versions of that feature.) And as noted in the documentary, the pre-production work he and his collaborators did on their Dune paved the way for so much that went into Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner and other films that followed their aborted attempt.

H.R. Giger DesignAs noted earlier, Jodorowsky has stayed busy since his Dune project collapsed with comic books, his “psychomagic” healing and other endeavors. He even made a film called The Dance of Reality that premiered at the 2013 Cannes Festival where Pavich’s documentary was first screened to largely rave reviews.

“I have the ambition to live 300 years. I will not live 300 years,” Jodorowsky says at one point in the film. “Maybe I will live one year more. But I have the ambition.” No matter how long he lives, one thing’s certain – he’ll be busy and never boring until the day he finally leaves his fascinating life and work behind. That ambition for life, coupled with genius and perhaps of touch of madness, makes Jodorowsky’s Dune a very entertaining picture.

Jodorowsky’s Dune ( opens Friday (April 25) in Nashville exclusively at Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.); there will be a post-show discussion with director Frank Pavich Thursday, May 1, after the 8 p.m. screening;
click here for all showtimes, more information and to buy tickets. Rated PG-13 for some violent and sexual images and drug references, 88 min.; Directed by Frank Pavich with cinematography by David Cavallo and animation by Syd Garon. Featuring Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, Jean-Pierre Vignau, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, Nicolas Winding Refn, Richard Stanley, Gary Kurtz, Diane O’Bannon, Devin Faraci, Drew McWeeny  and Christian Vander. The Belcourt is also offering a look at David Lynch’s Dune Saturday and Sunday May 3 and 4 at 2 p.m. each day.



*Photo of Alejandro Jodorowsky by David Cavallo and artwork by Chris Foss and H.R. Giger courtesy Chris Foss, H.R. Giger and Sony Pictures Classics.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (