When David Hockney was young, he was different. He had a “crinkly chipper.” For those who don’t immediately recognize the phrase, that’s a device to crinkle-cut his homemade french fries. This information is relayed by an old friend, who knew the painter before his first trips to New York and Los Angeles and his eventual rise to international fame. It’s also a wonderfully representative detail of the spirit of Hockney, the new documentary by Randall Wright.
The film is a thorough, 112-minute overview of its subject’s life and work. Hockney grew up in Yorkshire, attended the Royal College of Art in London, and eventually found artistic inspiration in America. He first moved to Los Angeles in 1964. His work in the 1960s, from the sexually provocative We Two Boys Together Clinging Together and Domestic Scene to the architecturally striking A Bigger Splash and Beverly Hills Housewife, made him one of the most important figures in Pop Art.
Of course, all of this is fairly obligatory. Wright includes plenty of newly shot interviews with Hockney and his many friends and collaborators, as well as a great deal of charming archival footage, both private and public. He follows the artist’s resume into his operatic productions of the 1970s, his photo collages of the 1980s, and the many experiments that came after. The film concludes with his recent work on iPhones and iPads, a testament to his evergreen flexibility.
Much attention is paid to Hockney’s remarkable skill for portraits. His subjects discuss his process, the way that he used black and white photographs as a starting point and then embellished, often with inspired and fictional imagery. A particularly worthy moment comes from the story behind one of his most famous of these, that of pioneering gay novelist Christopher Isherwood and his partner, artist Don Bachardy. It’s a passing of the torch, in a way, from the one generation’s legendary gay Brit of Los Angeles to the next.
But the exhaustive biographical detail, fully meriting the 112-minute runtime, is not the reason to go see Hockney. Instead, that would be the delightful ways in which Wright attempts to marry the colorful, rambunctious energy of both Hockney and his work to an often stylistically restrictive genre.
The most obvious example is the use of intertitles. They come at unexpected times and are used in a welcome variety of ways. Some of the quotes, colorfully lettered onto colored backgrounds, introduce loose chapters. Others highlight and further explore ideas that came immediately prior. They add a flexibility to the film’s structure, one which is also endorsed by much of the new footage Wright included. Silent sequences mimic Hockney’s long meandering double-decker bus rides through London and his first late-night bike ride in Los Angeles.
Composer John Harle also makes sure to keep the original score interesting, moving easily between genres and avoiding the post-minimalist mean toward which so many unremarkable documentary scores have striven.
All of these gestures, many of them only occasional, underline a point made by Hockney himself. While discussing his use of a border in A Bigger Splash, he explains how mediating the image can change it. “New ways of seeing mean new ways of feeling.” Now, Wright isn’t trying to completely remake the biographical documentary. But what he does accomplish is the slight refitting of the genre to the subject of an artist, one whose lively personality and dynamic paintings are perhaps more suited to cinematic treatment than many of his colleagues.