Judge Patrick Bromley is too hot for TV.
The mouth that changed the face of television!
The late Morton Downey Jr. is a fascinating documentary subject. He's a complicated guy—that it's hard to wrap one's head around. Did he believe the things he was shouting, or was he just an opportunist who saw a void in broadcasting and filled it in the most outrageous way possible? Was he genuinely passionate or just a cynical showman? Was he a liar? A cheat? A patriot? All of these?
I'm not positive that Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie is able to answer all of these questions—or if they even can be answered at all—but it does touch on every one of them. Constructed with archival clips of The Morton Downey Jr. Show, old TV appearances and even some home movies and then contextualized with contemporary interviews from those who knew him (including his best friend and frequent collaborator, his daughter, several of his fans [including comedian Chris Elliott] and Bob Pittman, the guy who first knew to put Downey Jr. on TV), Evocateur presents a messy portrait of a messy and polarizing personality.
Downey Jr., the son of famous singer and film star, was himself once an aspiring musician before finding his way onto television while already in his '50s. When The Morton Downey Jr. show launched in premiered on New York TV in 1987, it became an immediate phenomenon: guests were screamed at, crowds were whipped into a frenzy, broad political rhetoric was shouted as loudly as possible, appealing only to the emotions regardless of fact. The show was such a hit that it was syndicated nationally one year later in 1988, with Downey Jr. getting mainstream recognition as "The Mouth," a chain-smoking, opinionated provocateur that audiences either loved or hated. Then, just as quickly as it had caught fire, the show was canceled in 1989, just two years after it debuted. Though he made several attempts at a TV or radio comeback in the '90s, Downey never became more than a pop culture footnote before dying of lung cancer in 2001.
Though Evocateur does cover (and show some clips from) the earlier and later years of Downey Jr.'s life, its main focus is on the two years that The Morton Downey Jr. Show reshaped the face of the TV talk show; it's legacy isn't just in helping to create the "talk-show-as-mad-house" atmosphere of something like The Jerry Springer Show, but also inspiring the Glenn Becks and Sean Hannitys of the world. So thanks for that, MDJ. One long passage revisits Downey Jr.'s rivalry with the Rev. Al Sharpton and his involvement in the Tawana Brawley scandal; another tries to get to the bottom of a famous incident in which Downey Jr. claimed to have been assaulted by skinheads in the bathroom of an airport (and which theoretically might have led to the cancellation of his show). Mostly, though, it's a bunch of talking heads attempting to recreate who Downey Jr. was by describing all the different sides of his personality. My favorite is from one of the producers of his talk show, who describes the host's rhetoric as being totally unencumbered by facts. His legacy indeed.
While still compelling and interesting, Evocateur comes off a bit unfocused and schizophrenic. It jumps around from one idea to the next, rarely following through on any of the threads in introduces. Though it pays service to a number of different ideas (Downey Jr.'s influence chief among them), it can't hold its attention on them long enough to really develop them. The animation, neat as it may be, feels wedged in and unnecessary, like it's trying to dress up something that really doesn't need dressing up. Dramatizing Downey Jr. as a fire breathing dragon does nothing to change our impressions of him; the movie is best when it lets the man speak about himself—or lets those who knew him speak about his legend.
Magnolia's Blu-ray of Evocateur is fine, offering a 1080p HD transfer of what amounts to mostly talking heads and some upconverted video footage from the '80s. It's not the kind of movie that really demands to be seen in HD, but is still the best possible presentation available. The lossless 5.1 audio track does well by the dialogue, which makes up almost the entirety of the audio, only really coming alive during some of the animated sequences that are spaced throughout the film.
The main bonus feature on the disc is a commentary track from the doc's three (!) directors sharing a mostly informal conversation in which they talk about the participants, recap the production and generally joke around. That's followed by a handful of featurettes: one plays like a "Greatest Hits" clip reel of the Morton Downey Jr. Show; another focuses on a guest of the show, former stripper Kellie Everts, looking for young men to sleep with. There's also a short piece on the animated segments, plus the movie's original trailer.
I didn't watch The Morton Downey Jr. Show when it aired in the '80s, but have always been aware of the man as a pop culture figure. Evocateur puts his phenomenon in some historical context and remains mostly compelling throughout, even though his show seems like something I can stand and has fostered a lot of other "entertainment" I find similarly repellent. The documentary should work equally well for fans and critics alike—the lovers and the haters. Downey Jr. was a guy who inspired precisely those reactions.
Messy, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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