Whiteley is a balanced, well-executed and absorbing homage to a shooting star whose too-brief but spectacular trajectory illuminated and transformed the contemporary Australian art scene.
Brett Whiteley was at least as well known for his bohemian lifestyle and battles with his demons as his phenomenal art. This illuminating and always absorbing documentary attempts to redress this. Whiteley’s art – visual stream-of-consciousness poetry drawing on the big themes of erotic love, death, war and human duality – is front and centre here.
Director James Bogle does not skirt around the controversies and sex-n-drugs-n-rocknroll elements that provided a gleeful media with endless sensationalist copy during Whiteley’s life and earned him a reputation as the enfant terrible of the contemporary Australian art scene. However, his purpose is not to titillate, but to lift the bonnet on all that went into Whiteley’s remarkable and ground-shifting work, which features prominently throughout.
There’s a lyrical element and at times a hint of psychedelia in Bogle’s visual styling that is in keeping with the feel of Whiteley’s art. Some have criticised his use of CGI in this context, but it didn’t bother me.
By contrast, the chronological structure of the film is conventional, following a straightforward birth-to-death timeline. Landmarks include Whiteley’s artistic awakening in childhood upon encountering Van Gogh’s work for the first time; falling instantly in love with future wife and life-long muse Wendy at 15 as she walked by him in the street; their period in swinging sixties London where Whiteley drew immediate critical acclaim; a troubled, drug-addled but creatively significant stay at the Chelsea Hotel in New York in 1967, when 60s sub-culture was peaking and the Vietnam War was tearing America apart; being busted in Fiji; the return to Australia where a fascinated media pack and public awaited; and Whiteley’s subsequent career highs and lows as drug addiction tightened its grip on him.
There is no voiceover narrator. Rather, Bogle builds a composite portrait of his subject through archival media interviews and film footage (including an exchange between Whiteley and a young, uber-cool Robert Hughes circa early 70s), interviews, still shots from family photo albums and home movies. There are also quotes from Whiteley’s notebooks and interviews, sometimes voiced by actors (something else that has irked some reviewers, but I was too immersed in the film to take much notice). And of course, familiar but essential footage of the sometimes bare-chested Genius-Artist-at-Work.
Wendy is interviewed at length, provides much vital detail, and comes across as an enigmatic and captivating figure in her own right. Indeed, her contribution is integral to the film’s success.
My only criticism is that no real attempt is made to get to the bottom of Whiteley’s self-destructive bent (most notably, compelling questions over his relationship with his mother are left hanging). It’s simply accepted as a given that he had his “demons.” This might have been investigated through Wendy, but perhaps she sectioned off some territory as personal and out-of-bounds.
All in all, Whiteley is a balanced, well-executed and absorbing homage to a shooting star whose too-brief but spectacular trajectory illuminated and transformed the contemporary Australian art scene.
Australian release date: Whiteley in cinemas from 27 April.
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