Yes, it’s rare that I rate a documentary this high, but it’s also rare that documentaries are about topics I’m as interested in as Jodorowsky’s Dune. Indeed, if they’d found some more impressive critical voices to weigh in on the topic than they did, I might have gone the full five stars on this. Don’t get me wrong. I neither am 100 percent convinced of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s greatness, nor do I have any serious problems with the David Lynch version of Dune (1984). What fascinates me here is that this is the best and most compelling picture I’ve ever seen of a movie that didn’t get made — and I say this as someone who once entertained writing a book about movies that never quite got made. What sets this movie apart from most is how close it came, the amount of prep work that was done (and still exists) and — this is the selling point — the sheer force of Jodorowsky’s personality. At 84 (his age when this was made), he’s less an elder statesman of esoteric cinema than he is some kind of unbottled force of nature.
If you don’t know who Jodorowsky is — and I reckon it’s about even money at this point — he’s the living embodiment of cult movies. In fact, his El Topo (1970) is where the whole midnight movie thing started. It created a sensation, even gaining the support of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Here was a film that was advertised with, “See the naked young Franciscans whipped with cactus. See the bandit leader disemboweled. See the priest ride into the sunset with a midget and her newborn baby. What it all means isn’t exactly clear, but you won’t forget it.” Yes, it was sold on the fact that it was outrageous and that it couldn’t be understood, which is a way of saying, “Boy, is this ever a product of its time.” The same could be said of The Holy Mountain (1973), and it would have been even more true of his never-made Dune.
People who see Jodorowsky’s Dune and come away saying it should be made now — with its complete screenplay, its detailed storyboards, its effects all worked out — don’t get that it belongs to a time long past, to a phase in film that was even then on its last legs. Even without factoring in such now-impossible flashes of genius as casting Orson Welles and Salvador Dali, or having Pink Floyd create the music (Lynch had to settle for Toto), it was simply a film that could only have existed in the experimental era in which it was pitched. As wigged-out sci-fi with a philosophical bent, it would have fit comfortably alongside John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974), but imagining it in the age of Transformers: Age of Extinction is another matter. If it was too weird and ambitious for 1975 — it’s certainly nothing a major studio would touch now.
Director Frank Pavich, however, paints a vivid picture of a mind-blowing creation that never was. It’s all possible thanks to the incredibly detailed presentation Jodorowsky and producer Michel Seydoux handed out to the studios — something brought to even greater life by interviews with those involved like H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Seydoux and, most importantly, Jodorowsky himself. Even in his 80s, with his bloodied but unbowed ego, Jodorowsky comes across as an excitable — and exciting — mix of visionary genius, shameless mountebank and barking lunatic. He was, and is, the perfect man to scare a studio out of making his film due to his sheer enthusiasm and inflexibility. His insistence that “the movie has to be like I dream it,” including the possibility of a 12- to 20- hour running time, was probably always going to doom the film, but Jodorowsky — and the film — paint a glorious picture of what might have been.
When the film catalogues the invariably inferior movies that owe a debt to that pre-production package (which clearly made the rounds), it’s hard not to be pretty bummed out by the less-than-worthy co-opting of Jodorowsky’s vision — even while realizing that he was largely to blame. But what we have now is at least a glimmer of a movie that could have been a defining moment of the 1970s. That Pavich never questions Jodorowsky’s genius or the wisdom of his approach or, for that matter, the veracity of any of his claims may be a weakness, but it’s not a serious one. This is a film that needs to be seen by every movie lover out there. Not only is it a remarkable and remarkably entertaining document, but if it does well locally, it will increase the chances of Jodorowsky’s new film, The Dance of Reality, coming to town. Rated PG-13 for some violent and sexual images and drug references.