Documentary film-making can take many forms and embrace many different sets of values. Some documentaries aim to give you the truth while others feed you a line but the one universal value underpinning all documentary film should be that it leaves its audience just that little bit smarter and more knowledgeable than it found them. Randall Wright’s film about the British artist David Hockney may be warm, inviting and colourful but it certainly doesn’t pass the bar when it comes to informing the audience about its subject.
As far as art documentaries go, Hockney is as sublimely unambitious as an in-flight magazine. Completely uninterested in the question of why Hockney rose to fame in the first place, the film is quite content to shift between displaying Hockney’s paintings and sharing archival footage of the artist working and hanging out with his friends. In lieu expert opinion and historical context, the film relies upon personal anecdotes to locate Hockney vis-à-vis the rest of the artistic community.
The approach proves somewhat catastrophic in the opening section as Wright tries to establish Hockney as someone who was considered eccentric even by the lofty standards of the 1960s London art scene. Allergic to anything that might resemble a broader context, the film draws on anecdotes that all seem to revolve around the fact that Hockney is a gay northerner who happens to dye his hair. Far from establishing Hockney as a rebellious artist, this suggests that the 1960s London art scene was full of patronising snobs who are still patting themselves on the back for giving house room to people from Bradford. Oh darlings… it was all so mad in the 1960s! We all had long hair and pretended to be friends with ghastly northern yobbos who dyed their hair!
Less teeth-grindingly awful are the later sections dealing with Hockney’s life in America. However, despite suggesting that some of Hockney’s work had a gay subtext and that some of his middle-period works might have been affected by the collapse of a long-term relationship, the film never engages with how Hockney worked or thought meaning that nothing does beyond the level of the suggestion. In effect, the film provides no commentary whatsoever on Hockney’s work… it is nothing more than a succession of pictures intercut with footage of Hockney being amusing whilst wearing improbable spectacles.
Randall Wright’s Hockney is a pleasant enough way to spend close to two hours but the film offers little more than might be gained from a similar amount of time spent wandering around an art gallery or flicking through an art book. People hoping to learn something about one of the most famous 20th Century British painters will learn that David Hockney is a famous British painter and they might even learn to recognise a few of his works but the lack of context and analysis makes this film little more than an elegant dunce. Anyone hoping to learn something (anything) about David Hockney would be better off seeking out the 2003 Canadian documentary David Hockney: Secret Knowledge, which explores Hockney’s theory than advances in artistic technique have been driven by advances in the field of optics.