A product of wild ambition, unfettered creativity, and more than a little madness, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune remains one of history’s most infamous films maudit, a movie either too imaginative or too fanatical to actually be produced. The result of several years of work by a wild-eyed surrealist at the height of his powers, with significant contributions from an all-star, multi-disciplinary team of creatives, the film’s pre-production yielded one gigantic, rarely seen dossier, stocked with preliminary sketches, and little else. Yet the memory lives on, and is now primed to be spun further into legend with this nifty, breezy documentary by Frank Pavich.
Opening with, and dominated by, interviews with the Chilean director, the film delves into his background in avant-garde theater, which set the stage for the international success of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, works which gripped the imagination of newly freethinking early-’70s filmgoers. For Jodorowsky, who touts himself as an autodidact outsider uninterested in the tired games of narrative or traditional Hollywood success, this meant the chance to blow open the world’s mind with the cinematic equivalent of an LSD trip, something he saw as a sacred duty. To fulfill this goal he seized upon an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a book he’d never read, but whose huge sci-fi scope and philosophical undertones provided the perfect outer-space playground. From an interplanetary opening tracking shot intended to best that of Touch of Evil, to Welles himself playing a scabrous, levitating space tyrant, Jodorowsky was determined to pull out all the stops in terms of conception, assuming that anything and everything was possible.
With committed true-believer zeal, the doc laps up the director’s recollections, including the sad tale of the project’s death, after he and his collaborators failed to finance their proposed budget of $15 million. Here things get a bit soggy, as all parties involved hew to his story of a surefire visionary masterpiece killed by studio greed and shortsightedness. And while the mind-blowing conceptual art, radical special effects, and Salvador Dali playing the emperor of the universe are all pretty inviting prospects, it’s easy to see the point of view of the studios, adverse to gambling with a still-green director who, if the interviews here illustrate anything, has a propensity for coming off like a madman. There’s also no guarantee that the tempestuous filmmaker and his impressive collaborators (his art department alone included H.R. Giger, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and Dan O’Bannon) would have actually been able to pull off something which matched their imaginative capacity, especially considering the paltry state of late-’70s special effects; it’s worth remembering that even David Lynch’s disastrous Dune probably looked great in its schematic mock-up form.
Yet delving into those questions would admittedly ruin the fun, and that sort of measured examination isn’t what Jodorowsky’s Dune is about. This is a fanboy movie, one more engaged with the excitement of possibility than that of reality, and whatever the noxious connotations of that form of film appreciation, this particular project does a pretty fantastic job of stirring up enthusiasm. Pavich establishes an irresistible momentum by following a tried-and-true process of creative congregation, highlighting one unlikely recruitment story after another, as Jodorowsky circles the globe putting together his dream team, outwitting Dali and Welles, having mystical experiences with Mick Jagger, and screaming at Pink Floyd. It’s a raconteurs’ showcase, the chance for one man to restore his own unfulfilled vision, and for audiences, lulled by great stories, fantastic music, and an altogether pleasing sense of assembly, to take part in that cathartic process.