Hal Ashby’s work—and life—speaks for itself.
Hal, a warm and thoughtful documentary about the eponymous New Hollywood director Hal Ashby, is bookended by scenes that take place in a darkened editing bay, an apropos setting for a filmmaker who once claimed that “the best school for a director is in the cutting room.” Indeed, Ashby got his start as an editor before stepping behind the camera, winning an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison, who appears here and remarks, “Whenever he ran into problems in the editing room, he’d smoke some pot and work all night.” He’s one of a slew of talking heads—Judd Apatow, Haskell Wexler, Jon Voight and Lisa Cholodenko among them—on hand to offer fond recollections and enthusiastic praise largely centered around Ashby’s well-established legend as Hollywood’s resident hippie, a guy who made offbeat favorites like Shampoo and Harold and Maude and signed his production memos with “much peace and love.”
At least some familiarity with the man and his work is an essential component coming into Hal, which plays into the film’s favor considering Ashby neophytes are few and far between these days. That said, it’s not like the film reveals any hitherto unknown information or illuminates anything novel about his art or process. Your average Ashby aficionado—someone who’s already recognized Being There’s Trump-era prescience, or knew he was a high school dropout who lied about attending film school so he’d fit in with movie brats Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola—is sure to encounter plenty of redundancies here. Some rare archival footage and personal journal entries read aloud by actor Ben Foster provide the most revelatory bits, even if they have the same matter-of-fact presentation you’ve see in mainstream documentary filmmaking since time immemorial.
Where the film struggles most, though, is in making a case for reassessment. Ashby’s filmography is full curios and rarities, especially during the ‘80s, which saw him alternate between concert films (one for the Rolling Stones, another for a Trans-era Neil Young), TV movies and an Oliver Stone-penned crime drama called 8 Million Ways to Die, but Hal focuses on his hits. And they were, in fact, hits, despite the director’s reputation as an outsider. Ashby’s most successful run of films—The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979)—garnered a total of 23 Academy Award nominations, taking home seven. He was, despite the perception of his devotees and the opinion of this documentary, a thoroughly mainstream guy, even if the suits found him weird and, eventually, unmarketable. His films had countercultural undercurrents, but it’s not like American cinema in the ‘70s was busy praising authority, convention and tradition. Counterculture was the tradition, and Ashby was firmly of his time.
So the question remains: who, exactly, is Hal for? Director Amy Scott doesn’t seem to have an answer, devoting most of her stylistic energy to creating an affectionate, fuzzy tone to match all the sentimental onscreen testimonials. That’s probably enough to please the average fan, but it’s also out of step with Ashby’s own artistic sensibilities. His best films are great humanist declarations that speak to life’s joys and brightness but also its frailties and pain, territory where Scott is wary to tread. (She acknowledges his drug abuse issues without ever acknowledging that they were actually issues.) True, Scott isn’t required to display a similar fixation on darkness and disappointment, let alone share his ability as a filmmaker, but the intellectual mismatch is glaring. On hand to offer his thoughts on Ashby, Jeff Bridges—in the most Jeff Bridges way possible—quips “You gotta look at the pudding coming out of this guy’s oven.” In other words, Ashby’s work—and life—speaks for itself.