Initially, Happy, a documentary about Augusta artist Leonard ‘Porkchop’ Zimmerman, was intended to be a much smaller film. The initial brief, in fact, was to produce a short feature focused on Zimmerman’s Happy campaign.
But as filming progressed, director Michael McKinley clearly realized that the story of Happy required extensive explanation, explanation that expanded and elevated the film.
Instead of a movie about the power of positivity, Happy became a film about artistic evolution, love, loss and, most significantly, the redemptive power of grief.
It’s a film that could have easily staggered and stumbled under the considerable weight of its ambition. It requires the filmmaker to track and sustain storylines while keeping the movie’s delicate balance of entertainment and angst in perfect balance.
In the hands of a less skilled director, collapse seems eminent.
In the hands of a more experienced director – Happy being McKinley’s directorial debut – the willingness to run askew of established documentary tropes might have been equally damaging.
The resulting film, however, is a remarkable movie built on the comfortable cinematic vocabulary of stock footage and talking-head interviews and elevated by the occasional artistic risk.
Particularly appealing is an extended sequence that tracks Zimmerman’s creative process from initial inspiration to completion. Shot in lush light, the scene as set serves not only as a time-lapse tracking of Zimmerman’s process but also the perfect counterpoint to an explanation of his inspirations, inhibitions and powerful command of a unique visual vocabulary.
Likewise, a parade sequence, which would seem affected and ill-advised on paper, becomes a pitch-perfect celebratory metaphor for Zimmerman’s worldview.
Though a film that certainly resonates with local audiences – the showing Saturday will prove to be its most enthusiastic and familiar audience – it also requires no preconceptions or initial education.
Its lessons are simple and primal. Embrace your creative self. Life is fleeting.
Healing is hard. Happiness can be a choice. These are universal truths told cinematically in a graceful and lyrical manner.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that I do appear in the film, primarily because of my early coverage of Zimmerman’s return to both Augusta and painting.
I might also add that my few moments of screen time are among the more awkward and uncomfortable.
In fact, of the many interviews that feature in the film, including particularly powerful moments with Zimmerman’s sister Charmain and fellow
artist Jay Jacobs, the most powerful words are those
of Zimmerman himself and his late partner Brian, words that communicate true love, hard loss and the need to find a way to move forward.
It is those moments – like the relationship that inspired them far too briefly – that most clearly demonstrate why this film will prove important to audiences.
They are the moments that remind that to be human is to be hurt and to be joyful.
It reminds us of what it is to be inspired and, on occasion, paralyzed by that which has been taken from us. The fact that Happy, using the story of a single soul driven to create, accomplishes all these goals elevates it to something far more significant than merely a simple entertainment.
This is a film worthy of discussion and recognition. A real film. A film that, like Zimerman’s Happy campaign, strives to do nothing less than affect lives.
It’s a reasonable goal.