The story of Brett Whiteley’s life is inherently interesting, and many of his paintings were exquisite. It’s just as well, because initially this documentary suffers from an over-reliance on whimsical and distracting graphics, of the sub-Pythonesque variety. Fortunately, though, it rapidly improves, as the filmmakers calm down and adopt a more measured and restrained approach – in which the man, his art and those who knew him best are allowed to speak for themselves. It’s engrossing stuff – enveloping, in fact.
There’s a lot of ground to cover here, starting with young Brett’s astonishing technical facility as a teenager in Sydney. Then there’s the scholarship to study in Italy… acclaim in swinging Sixties London…. the time in New York at the Chelsea Hotel… the bust in Fiji… return to Australia, and the mansion in Lavender Bay… And accompanying him through most of these experiences was his first muse, Wendy. She’s interviewed at some length, and there are verbatim quotes from BW’s own interviews and notebooks, recreated by actors.
As a young man, Whiteley had a tendency to ramble semi-incoherently, but there was never any lack of cogent expression when he communicated through a paintbrush. From the nightmarish depiction of unalloyed evil in the Christie paintings – or the screaming baboon ‘junkie’ pinned to the ground with nails in “Art, Life And The Other Thing” – to the glorious celebration of beauty and vibrant colour in the Sydney harbour works, he knew precisely what he wanted to convey and he did it with pinpoint accuracy. Even at its most surreal, his oeuvre somehow maintained a core of crystalline clarity.
This is a fair and balanced appraisal – and not all of them, written or otherwise, have been that – of one of Australia’s very greatest artists. He died much too young, at 53, but he left behind a magnificent body of work. Whiteley is an absorbing tribute to that legacy.
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