People are fascinated by behind-the-scenes stories of their favorite movies, TV shows and albums. That’s understandable—we all like learning more about the things we love—but what’s more interesting is the cottage industry devoted to works of art that never saw the light of day. Whether it’s reissued deluxe editions of classic albums featuring abandoned outtakes or documentaries like Lost in La Mancha, about director Terry Gilliam’s misbegotten attempt to make a movie out of Don Quixote, we’re also drawn to artistic near-misses. Creativity is an enthralling, frustratingly mysterious creature: Even failures captivate us.
Jodorowsky’s Dune will be catnip to those who like to pore over forgotten pop-culture footnotes, even if you’re not particularly a fan of director Alejandro Jodorowsky or of Frank Herbert’s epochal sci-fi novel. Such particulars hardly matter: It’s the documentary’s grand question of what-if that’s endlessly engaging. Breezy and inconsequential, Jodorowsky’s Dune doesn’t entirely make the case that this aborted, ambitious film project would have been a game-changing masterpiece. But, nonetheless, you’ll walk away from it wishing Jodorowsky had at least been given a shot to try.
Directed by Frank Pavich, the film takes us back to the mid-1970s when Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky was riding high from his cult hits El Topo and The Holy Mountain and deciding on his next project. (Because his movies were such psychedelic, surreal experiences, perhaps “riding high” should be used advisedly.) Looking back with the benefit of 40 years’ hindsight, Jodorowsky (the documentary’s principal talking head) explains that he chose to adapt the prize-winning novel Dune even though he hadn’t read it. Regardless, he feverishly assembled a team of the best artists and musicians to help him execute his vision. And as Jodorowsky’s Dune suggests, he got awfully close to achieving it—which made it all the more agonizing for those involved that he didn’t.
Pavich is blessed not just to have access to Jodorowsky’s rich backlog of prep materials—including over 3,000 gorgeously rendered storyboards—but also Jodorowsky himself. Speaking in his broken English that only makes him sound more like a lunatic genius/mystic, he unfurls such statements as “For me, Dune will be the coming of a god. I wanted to make something sacred, free, with new perspective.” Jodorowsky, who just turned 85, seems so extreme, so impassioned that he’d either frighten everyone away or lead them like the Pied Piper. The documentary makes clear that with Dune, the latter happened: Illustrators such as H.R. Giger and Jean Giraud and musicians like Pink Floyd (who were working on Dark Side of the Moon) all lined up to collaborate on Dune, as did Jodorowsky’s own son, Brontis, who was 12 and attached to play the main character, Paul Atreides. (If all that wasn’t enough, Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí and Mick Jagger wanted to act in the film, too.)
With such a pedigree, there’s no reason why Dune shouldn’t have been made. But like so many film projects, it fell apart, largely due to studio concerns about Jodorowsky and the budget—the same worries that hamstring ambition in Hollywood today.
Jodorowsky’s Dune brings out people like Drive filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn to lament what could have been, arguing that this potentially visionary film might have altered the course of sci-fi cinema forever. (Remember that this project predated the far more narratively conventional Star Wars.) But though the collection of interview subjects delivers deft, funny reminiscences about Jodorowsky and the proposed film, Jodorowsky’s Dune falls a little short of tragedy. In part, that’s because Jodorowsky is such an energetic, positive spirit that he refuses to let darkness shroud him for too long. But also, it’s because Pavich fails to get other viewpoints on the record, particularly any studio executives from that time who might have been able to provide other insights into why Dune sputtered. Additionally, it’s a missed opportunity that the movie never hears from the man who did eventually make Dune, David Lynch, who certainly would have his own stories about that book’s troubled path to the big screen. (Especially considering that Lynch is a master filmmaker in his own right and that his Dune was a disaster, it feels a little easy of Jodorowsky’s Dune to assume that Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been an unqualified triumph.)
Still, those sorts of quibbles don’t detract too much from a documentary that plays like a well-made DVD supplement to a cherished cinematic classic. The irony, of course, is that the supplement exists but not the actual film. Maybe that’s for the best, though. Sometimes, the idea of a great movie can be even more perfect than the finished product. At one point, Jodorowsky states that his Dune exists, even if no one ever saw it. This loving documentary is all the proof he needs.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Frank Pavich
Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss Brontis Jodorowsky, Richard Stanley, Nicolas Winding Refn
Release Date: Mar. 21, 2014