Bill Murray (Ghostbusters, Caddyshack) has been the subject of a million internet legends over the last decade. He appears from nowhere like a Dadaist Doctor Who, does something wonderfully strange and leaves confused but delighted fans in his wake. Just another day on the internet. They probably aren’t even true.
Filmmaker Tommy Avallone decided to find out both the veracity of many of the tales and why they seem to have such a hold on us in his documentary The Bill Murray Stories. Why Murray, and what, if anything is the meaning behind it all.
The surprising thing about the The Bill Murray Stories isn’t that virtually all of them are true. He did show up at a house party in the UK and start washing the dishes. He did just join a random dude’s karaoke party for hours. He did read poetry to construction workers. Even the most memetic tale, the one where he steals a French fry from a diner and tells the person, “no one will ever believe you,” is confirmed by an old Second City acquaintance.
No, the soul of the film and by proxy the entire phenomena is what these encounters mean to people. Avallone travels from city to city to speak with the people who have had these run-ins. The details of each one, whether it’s randomly tending a bar or playing tambourine at an after-SXSW private concert, are immaterial. What matters is the effect.
“I know he’s just a person, but to me he was more than that,” says one subject.
Every person chronicled revels in the genuineness of the experience. Murray is one of the few American celebrities that simply seems to be without pretension. He famously has no agent or publicist, getting all of his official phone calls from a 1-800 number. That aspect of him is what creates the intrigue necessary for the long-running joke of these stories. It also just plain touches people’s lives.
Other celebrities have these interactions to some degree. When Prince died, people came out of the woodwork to share bizarre moments they’d had with his Royal Badness. It’s different, though. Prince was like an alien come to Earth. Murray is like meeting Buddha in the forest.
The affection that people speak of him with in Avallone’s film is moving. When he joins in a random kickball game it’s because he wants to play kickball. There’s no artifice to it.
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The greater philosophical point of The Bill Murray Stories is that these encounters are both a form of improvisational play for the actor and a way of staying awake. Parallels are drawn to roles like Groundhog Day, Meatballs and even the Dalai Lama story scene in Caddyshack where Murray seems to be expressing a personal belief in the need to be in the moment. There’s something very Zen about the act of just engaging in a real way. As one subject puts it, Murray likes to get lost. He enjoys the experience of finding out where he is.
I’m reminded of back in the day when Bill Curtner and I wrote “You Cannot Kill David Arquette.” It’s a silly song (at least as silly as a Bill Murray story), but the underlying truth was always that if you can believe outlandish but amazing things about someone then the world becomes a little brighter. That’s Bill Murray as seen through Avallone’s lens.
It’s a short film, barely longer than a particularly good Lindsay Ellis video. In that run time one of the quirkiest and most lovable parts of meme culture turns into a meditation on how we come and go in other people’s lives. It’s an anthem in the name of just making connections with people.If there’s a saint of doing things just because they make the world better and more memorable, then it’s the Murray of the stories.
The Bill Murray Stories screens at Alamo Drafthouse (2707 Commercial Center Boulevard) Saturday, September 29 at 6 p.m.