Shepard & Dark addresses, and acutely analyzes, the way friendship can bend, and occasionally snap, over time. Pals for over 47 years since meeting in Greenwich Village in 1963, Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark spent just as many of those years together as they did apart. During the times they weren’t physically in each other’s presence, they would write to each other, and there now remains a canon of lucid letters between the two.
Director Treva Wurmfeld catches these two men—Shepard, a playwright and actor, and Dark, a label-less mensch currently working at a supermarket—at a time when they’re reuniting to publish, through a Texas university press, a book of their letters. This provides the perfect frame from which to elaborate on their time and experiences together, even reminding Shepard and Dark of their forgotten memories, while consistently contextualizing the present. Due to his catalytic recent separation from Jessica Lange, Shepard now has the time to reflect on his life before Hollywood, which primarily involved Dark and the communal family unit of lovers and kin they belonged to from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s. This is a past Shepard feels ambivalent about, at once driven to appreciate the warmth of his memories and yet aggressively apprehensive to surrender to nostalgia.
Dark quickly points out that he and Shepard are different, yet “complement each other,” but Wurmfeld does a fine job avoiding proscribed juxtaposition, often allowing the interplay between Dark and Shepard to speak for itself. Shepard is solipsistic, driven by wanderlust, and tortured by selfish decisions despite repeatedly making them; Dark, on the other hand, is a more hermetic, dog-loving pothead who spends most of his time in his tiny New Mexico bungalow writing Beat-influenced prose.
Mostly due to the modest yet eloquent duo, observed apart as much as together, Wurmfeld is able to coax out a portrait that’s refreshingly casual in its sage wisdom. While the documentary’s form is rather conventional, Wurmfeld is able to carefully and sparsely use snippets of the aforementioned letters and photos/footage from the past to full effect. The moment most indicative of this friendship, however, is a wonderful moment when the twosome walk out of a diner and Shepard starts to sing Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.” Without hesitating, Johnny listens, and tries to add a bit to Shepard’s vocals, and they reach a harmony that’s both innately aligned and yet syncopated.