The burgeoning subgenre of documentaries dedicated to influential 1970s filmmakers gets an essential entry with Amy Scott’s Hal, a conventional yet wholly enjoyable journey through the life and filmography of the era’s revered maverick. If you know your film history, you’re well aware of Hal Ashby’s role as the tragic hero of that decade’s studio revolution. It’s rough to hear that story again, but the interviews with his contemporaries and the later generation of filmmakers he influenced long after his untimely death are insightful and entertaining enough to justify the doc’s existence. If it inspires just one young cinephile to check out Shampoo, it will have done a great service to the medium.
Scott shows that she gets it with the film’s first shot: a KEM flatbed editing machine being manipulated by a pair of hands, one of which has a joint pinched between its fingers. This is the Ashby we’re read about in numerous books and profiles. Scott then begins to tell Ashby’s story in his own words as much as possible, with Ben Foster giving voice to the lively letters Ashby would fire off to friends and enemies alike. Ashby possessed an all-consuming passion for filmmaking, and a strong sense of social justice; the latter attribute was the spark for a rich creative partnership (and lifelong friendship) with director Norman Jewison. Jewison and Ashby were a directing/editing package deal in the mid- to late-'60s, rattling off classics like The Cincinnati Kid, In the Heat of the Night(for which Ashby won a Best Editing Oscar) and The Thomas Crown Affair.
Jewison gushes over Ashby’s skill and commitment to the postproduction process, which Scott backs up with old interviews where Ashby brags about spending seven months holed up in the editing room. Indeed, when the duo set up shop in Frank Sinatra’s old bungalow on the Samuel Goldwyn lot, Jewison had Ashby’s space decorated as if it were his home because, for the better part of a year, it literally would be. Feeling the need to bring his full creative talents to bear, Ashby made his directorial debut on The Landlord, a brilliant comedy about race relations that’s as resonant today as it was then (when it whiffed with critics and stiffed at the box office). Ashby’s sophomore effort, Harold & Maude, was also dismissed by critics in 1971, but, unlike The Landlord, it would eventually find a fervent cult following. While Scott’s m.o. with this doc is to keep things zipping along, I nevertheless found myself wishing she’d spent a little time demonstrating how profoundly Harold & Maude shaped the sensibilities of Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell and Judd Apatow (the last three are interviewed in the film).