Alice Neel is a surprisingly dense, multilayered documentary on the painter Alice Neel, made by her grandson, Andrew Neel. The film offers one of the most well-rounded portraits of an artist’s life I’ve seen in any documentary. It owes something to the cinema verité approach of D.A. Pennebaker in that it eschews a narration, but it departs from Pennebaker’s work in that it does identify the people talking. However, its great strength—besides providing a remarkable showcase for the artist’s paintings—lies in the fact that it also owes a huge debt to the Citizen Kane approach to a life story. Neel’s film gathers together—without comment—the reactions and memories of a great many people to create a fascinating portrait that isn’t always flattering to either Alice Neel or the people being interviewed. On the one hand, there’s her status as a great artist, but on the other, there’s a sense of a certain failure as a human being. Not all remembrances are kind, and quite a few remembrances are even less kind when they concern other people in her sphere. Overall, it’s an exhilirating work that ought to be seen by both admirers of Neel’s art and anyone interested in the documentary film.
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