In making the case for Hal Ashby as a major director due for reassessment, Amy Scott's documentary Hal exemplifies the notion of cinema as a powerful, complex tool of personal expression. Why exactly did Ashby -- director of such enduring classics as Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979) -- never really achieve the household-name familiarity of some of his contemporaries? That's one of the many questions posed by Scott's touching journey through Ashby's life and career, but Hal never quite explicitly answers it. Rather, the film tries to embody the ethos that made the man's work so special, and maybe even allowed it to be taken for granted.
None of Ashby's movies were remotely autobiographical -- the projects were often instigated by other, bigger names such as Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda -- and yet he still found something surprisingly personal in the material. To highlight this, Scott interweaves Ashby's emotional life with individual themes from the films. We see the specter of Ashby's father's suicide get aired out in the dark comedy of Harold and Maude. The director's womanizing informs Shampoo, featuring Beatty as a philandering hairdresser. His fears of selling out are reflected in Bound for Glory (1976), the fictionalized Woody Guthrie biopic that showed the legendary folk singer trying to maintain his integrity as his career took off.
Scott weaves these different strands -- the personal, the political and the artistic -- with uncommon smoothness and dexterity, carrying us through Ashby's life briskly and movingly.