The start of Hockney offers a roundabout, even foreboding, perspective on Bradford-born painter and photographer David Hockney that’s more rousing in its unsettled sensibilities than the stock formulations that subsequently follow. A photographer directs Hockney for a bizarro photo shoot of some sort, which is overlaid with commentary about the artist’s eccentric behavior “when he first came to the college.” Director Randall Wright cuts between unintroduced talking heads, still photographs of Hockney, and archival footage with such assurance and disregard for immediate context that the impressionistic assemblage delights purely for its sheer perversity as a ramshackle structure of feeling, suggesting a documentary mode more akin to its primary subject’s fractured consciousness than a causal order imposed by a filmmaker for the sake of accessibility and clarity.
Nearly virtuoso, this opening gives way, following a title card accompanied by the sounds of distant bombs exploding, to a portrait of Hockney, the eccentric artist as a young, middle-aged, and old man, that eagerly reduces passages of his life into montages of pop pabulum. A typical sequence displays Hockney’s paintings being composed in sped-up time, the way behind-the-scenes specials often show a basketball arena going from desolate inactivity to being completely full. A clarinet-based music track scores the image, providing a sound bridge to Hockney addressing a question in an archival interview, with the host asking him, “Why are you popular?” Wright mashes together footage of Hockney vigorously sketching a piece while sitting in his living room, as well as close ups of a pencil at work. Such inclusions too literally configure artistic practice, indicating Wright’s addled approach to depicting an active mind, particularly a mind that’s being touted throughout as impregnable.
In other words, Hockney plays softball with its subject, refusing to conceptualize an act of creation beyond its most tactile and visible components, so that the film becomes a repetitive segmentation of various high points in Hockney’s apparently tumultuous life, both as an artist and lover. His doomed relationship with Peter Schlesinger, himself an accomplished photographer, began in 1966 while the two attended UCLA together and extended into the early ’70s, after the pair moved to London.
Accordingly, the film enters a tiresome “I think” phase in its second half, which features Hockney’s friends and colleagues offering speculative insights into his state of mind, such as “David was upset. I think he was genuinely in love with Peter” and “That was a very upsetting period. I think David was taking tranquilizers as well.” Wright does little to deter these kinds of half-cocked assertions and even indulges them at times, so that commentary becomes less a means to conceive of Hockney’s talents than to revel in his alleged pain. What Hockney lacks in conceptual rigor it more than compensates for in gossip-driven interviews, but that’s a dubious tradeoff, not least because it implies the artist’s life fascinates more for its misgivings than its successes. A whiff of bad faith ultimately hangs over the entire film, whittling Hockney’s life into a trite formulation of ineffable brilliance coupled with tortured romance.