Celebrities: Please Don’t Make Movies About Yourselves

By  · Published on December 8th, 2012

“When Danny asked me to make the film, I knew right away I had the opportunity to pay tribute to a skateboarder I admired and tell a human story that fed my filmmaking soul. When Danny calls and asks, you don’t say no.” – Jacob Rosenberg, director of Waiting for Lightning

There is no real way of knowing, just by watching it, that the new documentary Waiting for Lightning is a work commissioned by its own subject. The above quote comes from an interview in the press notes, and after reading it, I decided that the film is even worse than I already thought. Something just rubs me the wrong way about a prominent person having a movie made about himself. It reminds me of Triumph of the Will, especially the opening. This isn’t to say that I think legendary pro skateboarder Danny Way is comparable to Hitler in the worst of aspects, just in the narcissism sense.

To get technical, in spite of Rosenberg’s statement, Way is not a credited producer. And he’s hardly in the film outside of the old and new footage of his death-defying skateboarding stunts (including a climactic record-setting jump at the Great Wall of China), which make up most of the visuals in this biographical portrait. Waiting for Lightning is, however, funded in part by DC Shoes, the company Way’s brother co-founded and one of his main sponsors, while two of the actual producers are Way’s co-managers, Darryl Franklin and Ray Ibe. This is actually akin to many decent documentaries, such as Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, which was produced by the subject’s wife, Olivia Harrison. The difference may be a thin line between hagiographic tribute and a self-absorbed showcase of your own self-affirmed triumphs.

If Waiting for Lightning had more of a first-person feel to it, if Way was a host or narrator by any means, I would label it an auto-hagiography, a subgenre that appears to be on the rise with Beyonce helming an upcoming documentary about herself for HBO (see the teaser trailer here). It’s nothing new, if you consider Bob Dylan’s unreleased film Eat the Document, co-directed by D.A. Pennebaker, and Madonna: Truth or Dare, which is believed more to be the work of the superstar subject than that credited directors Alek Keshishian and Mark Aldo Miceli.

Those cases have their own issues of vanity, of course, but the fact that Way isn’t as much of a celebrity outside of his sport (I’d never heard of him) makes his film seem more of a grab for attention. If Way is so great, why didn’t some outsider have the idea for a doc about him? I’d even prefer a fan-directed “stalk-umentary,” and I hate those as a rule too. The thing about those other aforementioned self-documenting subjects is they’ve already got people trying to tell their story or document their concerts. With their auto-hagiographies, the music icons just want control, whereas Way and his partners apparently feel a need to show the world he deserves a film and an audience. And maybe he does, but then let someone else handle it.

It’s bad enough that autobiographical film and hagiographic films each by themselves have their problems. Most first-person documentarians have an obnoxious quality of self-importance, with only some rare filmmakers such as Ross McElwee and Michael Moore having great insights and additional layers of subject matter to elevate their works above mere cinematic memoirs. But then there’s the matter of Moore becoming arguably too famous for his style of filmmaking, his celebrity often getting in the way of the cause at hand. As for hagiographies, the scandal of Sesame Street puppeteer Kevin Clash led POV Blog’s Tom Roston to wonder if such positive portraits as Being Elmo are too insufficient to be sold off as real biographies.

Combining the two types results in a kind of propaganda of personality. And it makes the stunts in Waiting for Lightning seem more like showing off than the achievement of something truly spectacular and significant. If Danny Way really merits a film – and I think he probably does – I look forward to a more objective portrait of the daredevil skater. I may just have to wait until many years after his death.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.