Thanks to the hungry maw of cable TV, nearly every movie production is now accompanied by a documentary crew, assigned to get enough footage for at least a half-hour "Making of" short. Such sub-productions are traditionally arranged by the producers of the main feature; and, not surprisingly, it is the usual fate of these films to be sheerly promotional in nature. Going into endless rotation on E!, Entertainment or some other cable outlet -- how many times has the Lethal Weapon IV entry run in the last month? -- they bear precisely the same relationship to real documentaries as press kits bear to reviews.
Full Tilt Boogie, Sarah Kelly's behind-the-scenes look at the making of From Dusk Till Dawn, was (as is the pattern) commissioned by the backers of the original film, Miramax. But in most regards, Boogie doesn't fit into the standard pattern -- which may be why Miramax is releasing it theatrically two and a half years after the movie itself, when its value as a promotional tool is essentially zero.
This is not to say that Kelly has fashioned a blisteringly candid look at the indie-film equivalent of Hollywood's dark side. (You only wish....) It becomes pretty clear along the way that she's one of the gang: Indeed, the press notes refer to Tarantino as her mentor and credit him with choosing her for the job. It would have been surprising if her film went out of its way to make him look bad.
But Kelly is clearly shooting for a slightly higher -- or at least broader -- goal than do the makers of most such films. She wants to convey to the audience a sense of life on the set -- not just the set of From Dusk Till Dawn but of contemporary indie productions in general.
While the promotional aspects of "Making of" films require that 80 percent of the footage revolve around the stars, Full Tilt Boogie spends much of its time with grips, behind-the-scenes craftspeople and the stars' personal assistants. It also documents -- albeit in less than satisfactory detail -- the producers' run-ins with IATSE, the Hollywood union that protested the $18 million film's use of a non-union crew.
Still, most of the stars get plenty of screen time. George Clooney, appearing to be a hip guy who just happens to have classic Hollywood-star looks and is enjoying the attendant perks immensely, comes across the best, with Juliette Lewis running a close second. Most of the old veterans display a matter-of-fact charm: Fred Williamson, interviewed, amusingly, in full vampire makeup, is the savviest, while Michael Parks is a bit more in the clouds. Harvey Keitel, the most famous of the character players, declines to cooperate with Kelly except for one brief interview; and, when you see that interview, you realize that he should have declined altogether. Keitel is a great actor, but some great actors should stay in character.
Tarantino is a trickier issue. Suffice it to say that viewers who find his public persona obnoxious will find nothing here to change their minds, while those untroubled by his geeky boyishness may enjoy the hyperkinetic expostulations Kelly has preserved.
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In watching any documentary, one has to remember that the participants are inevitably playing to the camera, and that goes double when many of them are actors. When Tarantino throws a fake fit at his assistant, he's just mugging. And at least one sequence, a funny intro that's patterned on This Is Spinal Tap, is obviously staged -- in part or, likelier, in full.
Kelly is at her best when she's among the below-the-line crew. But even though her comfort with them opens a few candid doors, it also compromises what the movie could have been. In short, Kelly is too nice to get the best possible documentary: This is one of those cases when morality and aesthetics are at cross-purposes. Full Tilt Boogie would be more notable if there had been a nasty S.O.B. behind the camera -- someone willing to insinuate his or her way in, get people to really open up, and then burn all bridges afterward.
Still, what's important to remember is how much fun Full Tilt Boogie is, most of the time. Those interested in movie production -- and even some who aren't -- are likely to find the experience more fun than most summer releases ... and almost certainly more fun than From Dusk Till Dawn itself.
Full Tilt Boogie.
Directed by Sarah Kelly. With Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis and George Clooney.