Judge Michael Nazarewycz isn't much of an artist, but he can draw a conclusion.
"They say I could draw before I could talk."
I once wrote for a movie website that did a series of year-end "Best Of" lists, and one of my lists was "Best Movie Posters" of the given year. I wound up selecting eight posters for the year. It wasn't easy. I say that not because having to review hundreds of posters made it difficult to choose only eight, I say that because it was difficult to find eight that really popped, despite having hundreds to choose from. It was the first time I had really noticed how dull—and unoriginal—movie posters had become. What once were works of art have been reduced to being extensions of a marketing department: poster-size handbills devoid of creativity that we would normally ignore and throw away were they not, well, poster-size. Drew: The Man Behind the Poster takes us back to a time when movie posters were pieces of art, and it celebrates Drew Struzan, the medium's Da Vinci, and his endless collection of movie Mona Lisas.
Facts of the Case
Drew Struzan led a sad childhood, being raised by parents who didn't love him. When he was old enough, he left home and enrolled in art school, where he studied—and excelled at—illustration. He also met his wife while enrolled there. Success didn't come right away, and the Struzans lived some very lean years, especially once they had a son.
As is so often the case, timing is everything, and there was a growing interest in, and demand for, illustrated album covers. Struzan showed his portfolio to the right people and a career began. From there, Struzan parlayed his success into the more lucrative field of movie posters, where his work would become truly iconic. Movies for which he has created posters include all six Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones films, the Back to the Future trilogy, and countless more.
The greatest challenge in reviewing director Erik Sharkey's Drew: The Man Behind the Poster is that it's billed as a documentary about the artist Drew Struzan, but it's really a documentary about the art of Drew Struzan—and what art it is. To echo the sentiment of some of those interviewed, in one illustration (or up to three, such as his infamous triptychs of each of the two Star Wars trilogies), Struzan manages to capture the entire essence of a film (or series) and bring it to life, not just present a likeness of a film's star and a reference to some plot device.
Take, for example, the poster for 1985's Back to the Future. You know the one—it shows Marty McFly standing next to the Delorean, with that shocked look on his face as he stares down at his watch, the streaks of 88 mph-created flame strips licking at his feet. You know the one, right? Of course you do.
Every other poster of his is like that. Even if you are a casual film fan, you know so many posters that he has drawn, and not just the heavy hitters like those I've already mentioned, or other biggies like The Thing, the Muppet films, and Big Trouble in Little China. He's done some you might not realize he did, like First Blood, The Goonies, and Coming to America. This film showcases dozens of his illustrations, and it seems every other poster offers a wow moment of realization, admiration, or both.
Almost as impressive as his work, though, are the major names who appear on-camera—and for significant lengths of time—to sing Struzan's praises: director Steven Spielberg (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial); producer George Lucas (Return of the Jedi); director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy); director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption); and actors Harrison Ford (Blade Runner), Michael J. Fox, and others. (Struzan, by the way, supplied the art for all of the parenthetical titles I just listed.) For filmmakers and celebrities of that consequence to sit down and offer their time and kind words for a poster artist speaks incredibly highly of the poster artist.
There's even a great bit in the film about some of the posters he did that were better than the films they were immortalizing. It's funny stuff. As for my favorite information nugget, I'll go with what Struzan identified late in the film as being his personal favorite poster of his own creation: Police Academy 3.
This film is an art history class for the film student in all of us.
The Dolby audio neither dazzles nor disappoints, as the film is 90 percent dialogue and 9 percent music. The other 1 percent is the occasional film clip that sounds perfectly fine. The video transfer is an interesting mix, though. Some of the interview footage is VHS-grade, and I was concerned until the parade of posters began. Every piece of Struzan's art is presented in beautiful, sharp color. It's almost as if the filmmakers muted the imagery of the rest of the film to give the posters a pronounced pop. Intentional or no, it works. I would have loved to have seen a gallery of posters with the Blu rinse. (There is no Blu-ray option for this film. Darn it.)
The extras are OK considering this is something of an indie doc. The first is a 21-minute panel that was shot at San Diego Comic-Con 2013. The panel consists of Struzan, director Sharkey, and about a half-dozen others, including a surprise appearance from actor Thomas Jane, who starred in The Mist, a film Struzan, as explained in the doc, is closely connected to. Following that, there are three interviews about 6-8 minutes each, where directors Darabont and del Toro, and actor Michael J. Fox, each talk about how much they love Struzan and his work. There are also a pair of trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As documentaries go, this is pretty vanilla. I've said it before: any story, even a true one, needs conflict to make it compelling. There are two areas of significant conflict in Struzan's life. The first is his aforementioned loveless childhood, about which Struzan seems to want to avoid talking about at all costs, as his recount of that time hits 88 mph so he can get flee that part of his past. The other conflict involves how his former management team robbed him of untold sums of money and over a hundred pieces of original artwork, mostly because (a) they were bad guys, and (b) Struzan admits to having no understanding at all about the business side of his business, despite his wild success. This story is quickly told, and seems inserted as an afterthought. The rest of the doc is nothing but a string of success stories and wow moments. Those are great, but after a while, they're not very compelling.
If you mute the volume and play Drew at a party, like it's a piece of moving art, your guests will stop to watch.
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