It’s weird, but I couldn’t help but think about D-Day while watching a documentary about adapting Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune. So many odd little things came together to allow Allied forces to successfully land at the beaches of Normandy: the seas were eerily calm that day, the Germans had been properly fooled into believing the landing would be further up the coast, new docking technology allowed the troops to get onto land easier. Each piece of this successful campaign could have gone awry at any moment, so it carries with it a “what if?” quality that a much different world could have been born from that moment had it been different. Similarly, a whole alternate history lies in wondering what would have happened if Alejandro Jodorowsky had been able to successfully adapt Dune. His attempts predate Star Wars and suggest that our current blockbuster system would look very different if he had been able to make his psychedelic freakout space opera. The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune by Frank Pavich traces the project from inception to near realization, revealing the depths of insanity that Jodorowsky was prepared to unleash on audiences in his attempt to simulate the experience of taking LSD. When this film was deemed too weird for the world and couldn’t be made, Pavich reveals how the visions of the collaborators of this failed project would echo throughout the rest of genre of filmmaking like stolen bits of song.
Jodorowsky assembled a stellar crew to produce a film that he thought would act as a prophet. Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Chris Foss, Dan O’Bannon, and HR Giger were drafted as Jodorowsky’s design team (or his “spiritual warriors” as he calls them) to create the weird costumes, settings, and ships for this bold new venture. He drafted Pink Floyd and Magma to do the score (each planet would have its own unique “sound” associated with it) and had deals worked out for Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali to play roles in his film. Meanwhile, Jodorowsky had cast his young son, Brontis, to play the lead, Paul Atreides — but did so in order to make demands of a young actor that no stage parent would allow, including training in martial arts for 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, while also studying philosophy and religion. All of these disparate, insane elements were coalescing together until Jodorowsky and producer Michel Seydoux could not secure the last bit of funding they needed for the film.
Unfortunately, Pavich’s film doesn’t do much to match the innovation of the subject matter. The director has impressive access to all of the (surviving) principal players in this story, and also to an untold wealth of materials that were created at the time. But these are all presented in standard talking head format, with inserts of original concept art, storyboards, and photos from that time. There are a few sequences in which Pavich animates the storyboards, and he graphically depicts how, while on some very potent weed, O’Bannon was entranced by Jodorowsky, but the interesting visual flourishes are kept to a minimum. Kurt Stenzel’s suitably atmospheric score goes a long way to echoing the space age meets psychedelic tone of the aborted film. But these are just minor elements — it would have been nice if Pavich’s documentary had strived to be as bold and innovative as the subject matter it dealt with, instead of coming off like a particularly fascinating filmmaker interview DVD featurette.
But then, when that filmmaker is Alejandro Jodorowsky, it’s easy enough to coast by on his interviews. The director is so charismatic, passionate, and oddly entertaining that it’s no wonder he almost willed this massively bizarre and expensive film into existence. The other interview subjects are insightful, as well, and each have their own gonzo stories from their time on the film (including a running theme that most of those working on Dune hadn’t even read the book before or during their development process), and it paints a picture of how infectious and inspiring Jodorowsky was for his creative collaborators. It’s hard not to either be amazed, aghast, or just enthralled by Jodorowsky whenever he’s on screen — even though it’s been almost 40 years, he still speaks about it like he’s trying to pitch everyone his film.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a great look at a hypothetical world we could be living in where blockbuster films are more interested in exploring quadrants of your mind than exploiting the four quadrants of a demographic. While Dune was a failure that never really had a chance in the market-driven American film studios, the fact that it is influential to this day is a testament to the powerful ideas and images that were created during those sessions. Jodorowsky’s Dune is not a film of similar nerve or originality, but it still reveals a passionate dedication to looking at what could have been. Even though not a single frame was shot of Jodorowsky’s vision, it has managed to influence and inspire filmmakers for generations, providing audiences with fleeting glimpses into this alternate world.