In 1974, the new guru of psychedelic underground cinema Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to make a sprawling, trippy adaptation of the science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert. The adaptation was never made, but fortunately for us the new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune gives us the next best thing: an impassioned blow for blow of the creative process by the man himself.
Jodorowsky sells this movie with his magnetic personality, and turns what is essentially a documentary of talking heads and still images into a spiritual quest to transcend the material plane. He explains that he wanted Dune to give audiences an LSD experience without taking any drugs. He wanted this movie to be a prophet, a psychopomp, and a god. He explains it all with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, and he is completely serious.
His mission was to assemble a group of spiritual warriors to make the film, and Jodorowsky brims with enthusiasm as he explains how he assembled his team: writer Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall, Prometheus); artists Moebeus, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger; Orson Welles; Salvador Dali; Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, and Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis, who underwent two years of extensive spiritual and martial arts training for the role of Paul Atreides.
Bound up in a massive, glossy tome are drawings for every character, costume and set illustrations in detail, the full script, and the entire storyboard sketched by Moebius of over 3000 windows. Very few copies were made of the book, and Michel Seydoux, Dune’s intended producer, sent the coveted items to film studios as a selling tool.
The lore of this film is massive, inspired, star-studded, and ultra-ambitious. For this documentary, essentially a eulogy for a dead project, I couldn’t ask for better subject matter. But anyone familiar with film production knows that the process is a series of compromises, and often where the ambition is largest, the pressures of the industry weigh the most.
Jodorowsky is a visionary, and nobody has ever made anything quite like his movies. Particularly impressive are the mystical spaghetti western El Topo and the psychedelic film par excellence The Holy Mountain. But re-watching these films (as I sometimes do) reveals slight cracks in the technical edifice, imperfections in the execution, minutely skewed camera angles, dated special effects, and some grating sound design. Jodorowsky is a master, but inspiration and vision are his strongest suits. With studio money and input, I question whether the final product would have satisfied his vision.
As it turns out, Hollywood was afraid of Jodorowsky and no studios were willing to furnish the $15M budget. Watching the expressions of the artists interviewed in Jodorowsky’s Dune, I was impressed by the expansive feeling of “what might have been,” a sentiment shared by everyone so greatly it seemed like a bittersweet triumph that Dune became a legend instead of a film (disregarding David Lynch’s version).
As a consolation prize we see the disparate parts of Dune reflected in a myriad of groundbreaking science fiction works like Alien, Blade Runner, and Contact, and in Jodorowsky’s own comic books. The ideas behind Jodorowsky’s adaptation have resonated strongly through the film world for decades until finally, solve et coagula, we have Jodorowsky’s Dune, a fully entertaining documentary about the passions that drive art.