When discussing the use of his music in the classic comedy Harold and Maude, Cat Stevens mentions in the new documentary Hal that he wasn’t happy with the versions used in the final film. Ashby had chosen rough demo versions of Stevens’ songs. Despite being disappointed with the choice at the time, Stevens now admits that Ashby likely made the right choice. In Hal, a look at the life and films of Hal Ashby, there are many times when Hal’s writer, director and editor Amy Scott finds moments where Ashby reveled in that type of rawness, an interest in going off the beaten path, which gives Ashby’s films much of their spirit.
In the 1970s, Ashby had a run of 7 films widely considered to be masterpieces, and as Hal posits, Ashby deserves to be mentioned alongside greats of the era like Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. Yet it’s Ashby’s unpredictability that was his strength as a filmmaker also made him a casualty of the studio system in the 80s.
Hal works more as a retrospective look at Ashby’s most successful period, starting with his job as an editor at MGM, which eventually led him to winning an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night. From there, Ashby would have one of cinema’s greatest runs in the 1970s, only to continue his career in the 80s and beyond with a number of obscure titles that even his biggest fans aren’t familiar with.
For those new to the work of Ashby, Hal shows why the work of Ashby is essential viewing. Ashby’s frustrations with race in his first film, The Landlord, or the ineptitude within the political system shown in Being There are as important today as they were in the 70s. For those already familiar with Ashby’s films, Scott digs deep into the iconic scenes from his films, such as Ashby’s take on the final scene in Being There, or explains how Jon Voight’s improvised speech in Coming Home came to be.
Scott beautifully and seamlessly connects each of these films to where Ashby was in his life at the time. Ashby discussing the Vietnam War – with his words narrated by Ben Foster – might lead into the film’s discussion of The Last Detail or his many love affairs fits perfectly in with Shampoo. Ashby is essentially the beating heart of these films, as he states, “I basically made my decision on how I feel about… what the hell kind of story we’re trying to tell and why,” and Scott quite often finds the source of how Ashby likely found “what the hell kind of story” he was trying to tell and why.
Hal’s biggest failure as a documentary, however, might be that it glosses over the post-70s work of Ashby’s, without trying to reassess them as potential forgotten gems. They’re merely considered the work of a filmmaker who has been failed by the studio system. Hal consistently presents evidence for the greatness of those 70s films, but never gives the same care for Ashby’s later work. Throughout Hal, we see directors like Judd Apatow, Adam McKay, and David O. Russell discuss how the major works of Ashby impacted them, but we never see anyone argue the importance of the films made after the 70s.
With almost every film Hal focuses on, Scott shows a moment that came out of nowhere, or an improvised touch that Ashby threw in for authenticity. That sort of unexpected, different take on the material is what made Ashby a great director who put himself into every film he made. Ashby was quirky and unpredictable, which was his gift and his curse. What Hal lacks by not burrowing further into Ashby’s life and his later films, it makes up for by showing just how much of Ashby is in each of his iconic films. Hal not only makes a strong case for the auteur theory – as all of these films would be wildly different without Ashby’s involvement – but also that Ashby’s contributions to cinema is just as important as those of Coppola or Scorsese.