It's the archetypal Sam Shepard setup. Embittered brothers, different enough to be two sides of the same coin, battle it out in the American West using alcohol and words as their weapons of choice; behind them looms the specter of the father who continues to dominate their lives. This classic familial configuration provided the framework for both Shepard's best-known play, True West, and one of his most recent, The Late Harry Moss, which he directed in 2000 at San Francisco's Magic Theater. Michael Almereyda's (NADJA, HAMLET) fascinating documentary goes behind the scenes, coming in when Shepard and his cast — Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, James Gammon, Cheech Marin, Woody Harrelson and Sheila Tousey — are three weeks into rehearsals and another three away from opening night. It offers a rare opportunity to watch a world-class playwright bringing one of his own works to life; rarer still, Almereyda puts his notoriously reticent subjects so sufficiently at ease that they actually sit down and discuss their craft. Penn recalls that the idea of becoming an actor first occurred to him when actor Anthony Zerbe paid a visit to his high school; Penn fell for his cool zipper boots. Nolte discusses suffering a serious nervous breakdown in the 1960s, shutting himself up in his parents' house and reading Stanislavsky. And Shepard speaks frankly about his own career and Harry Moss, a play he says was inspired by a Frank O'Connor short story rather than his famously troubled relationship with his own father. A farmer's son who supported his family during the Depression, Sam Shepard Sr. was variously a reporter for the Chicago Tribune; a WWII bomber pilot; a Fulbright scholar who taught Spanish; and a terrible alcoholic who finally couldn't keep a job. When Sam Jr. turned 13, his family fell apart. After his avocado farm failed, Sam Sr. retired alone to New Mexico and was well on his way to drinking himself to death when, in 1984, he was struck and killed by car outside a roadhouse. Shepard speaks plainly about what it meant to have an impossible drunk for a father. "No point in regrets," he mutters, yet his father continues to reappear onstage and haunt the playwright's imagination. Almereyda's film makes an interesting adjunct to Nathaniel Kahn's MY ARCHITECT; the son of famous architect Louis Kahn, Nathaniel looks for the missing patriarch in his father's work, while Shepard uses his own work as a conduit to the father who gradually dissolved into an alcoholic rage.
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- Released: 2004
- Rating: NR
- Review: It's the archetypal Sam Shepard setup. Embittered brothers, different enough to be two sides of the same coin, battle it out in the American West using alcohol and words as their weapons of choice; behind them looms the specter of the father who continues… (more)