It’s been called the most influential film never made. It’s Dune – no, not the debacle that represented David Lynch’s first and only foray into big budget filmmaking, but an earlier, even more ambitious effort guided by another kingpin of surrealistic, idiosyncratic filmmaking. It was a version to be helmed by one of the great weirdo filmmakers of the 70s, Alejandro Jodorowsky, the man whose career was essentially responsible for the creation of the entire midnight movie circuit. Despite gathering a talented gaggle of artists and actors together and getting deep into preproduction, the film never got made. Yet its impact still has reverberations throughout cinema. To not mince words, it may never have gotten the greenlight, but it changed the face of science fiction permanently. Jodorowsky’s Dune is that movie’s story.
Frank Pavich’s documentary charts the would-be film’s arc from inception to dissolution and the eventual aftermath it wrought. Structure-wise it’s a fairly simple “talking heads” film, alternating interviews and soundbites with various images of preproduction drawings and storyboards Jodorowsky and his team—famed comics artist Moebius, future Alien writer Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger—drafted to bring the script to visual life. However, it’s a tale told lively, in no small part due to the presence of Jodorowsky himself.
Pavich sketches out a brief history of Jodorowky’s controversial, attention-getting pre-Dune career, from his first film Fando y Lis, which got banned in Mexico, through his best known film, El Topo, the bizarre acid-Western that was championed by the likes of John Lennon and became the first film to gain traction as a popular midnight attraction, to his ambitious and successful The Holy Mountain. Then the film delves into the meat of the matter: asked what he wanted to do next, Jodorowsky decided on adapting Dune — despite having never read it. (A theme that becomes a running gag through the film as one collaborator after another admits the same thing.) Knowing only of the novel by reputation, Jodorowsky—a madman in a natty suit—elects to raise the bar for science fiction films by bringing Frank Herbert’s classic to life.
Searching for co-conspirators that he dubs “spiritual warriors”, he recruits O’Bannon, Giger, Moebius and renowned sci-fi novel cover artist Chris Ross to draw the thing to life and then proceeds to assemble an eclectic cast of actors including David Carradine, Orson Welles (whom he courted by agreeing to hire the chef of Welles’ favorite restaurant as his private onset chef), Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali to take on major roles (and you thought Robert Rodriguez was offbeat in his casting decisions. Assembling a scrapbook of ideas so in depth and beautifully crafted that it could make for quite a pricy collector’s edition coffee table art book, Jodorowsky spends two and a half years bringing his vision to life, wooing the studios who love everything about it…and then missing his chance as the same studios grow cold feet about delivering a $15 million budget (hefty in 1975 dollars) to a filmmaker as eccentric and willfully strange as Jodorowsky.
At once funny, fascinating and poignant, Jodorowsky’s Dune works as a film documentary largely based on the presence of Jodorowsky alone. Still spry at 84 years of age, the filmmaker is hardly the dour, pretentious sophisticate his films would seem to indicate. Charming, passionate, warm, jovial and enthusiastic, Jodorwosky makes for a charismatic presence and watching him spin his stories makes for a film that is very engaging even if you couldn’t care less about Herbert’s novel. At times, the director comes off like a somewhat deluded but kindly crackpot artist, but he brings more to the table then, say, fellow filmmakers Richard Stanley and Nicolas Winding Refn, who come off more like fawning acolytes than knowledgable interviewees. At least not until the end, when it comes to detailing the failed Dune’s influence on almost every subsequent sci-fi blockbuster made since. And it’s quite convincing evidence: Star Wars lightsaber battles exactly replicate sword fights storyboarded by Moebius, design ideas seem to have been incorporated into Raiders of the Lost Ark, set design in Prometheus mimic set design drawn up by Jodorowsky and crew…
It’s fascinating stuff and the best moments—the funniest and the most moving—come when Jodorowsky learns that Lynch has successfully made a version of Dune, only for it to turn out to be a misguided mess. (Even famous filmmakers get schadenfreude.) Equal parts entertaining and absorbing, Jodorowsky’s Dune manages to take some as seemingly mundane as another failed film and spin an engaging, thought-provoking documentary out of it.
4 out of 5 stars.