Documentary Feature

I Am Steve McQueen Review: "Wasn't Steve McQueen Awesome?!"

Friday, July 10, 2015 Rob Samuelson

I Am Steve McQueen

Director: Jeff Renfroe
Narrator: Robert Downey Jr.
Rating: Two and a half stars out of five
Available now on demand.

That Chris Farley fellow was really onto something when he did his The Chris Farley Show sketches for Saturday Night Live, eh? He would sit across from celebrities and ask empty-headed questions like the one he posed to a very alive Paul McCartney about the "Paul is dead" urban legend: "That was a hoax, right?"

So it goes with the new I Am Steve McQueen documentary available on streaming services. The central thesis of the film is, "Steve McQueen was cool. Wasn't Steve McQueen Cool? Yeah, Steve McQueen was cool," with Spike TV-level guitar riffs playing over interviews with Hollywood veterans who worked with him, were married to him, or were inspired by him like director Norman Jewison, ex-wife Ali MacGraw, and for some reason, model Marissa Miller, plus McQueen's son Chad and grandchildren Steven and Molly.

For the first hour, every talking head segment revolves around straight biographical information about McQueen's rough upbringing, first marriage and family life, and of course his acting and car/motorcycle racing careers. By all accounts he was a good father and an all right husband most of the time, but all the documentary cares about is his blue eyes, the way he wore clothes, his love of motorized machines. Archival footage of interviews with the man himself are the most enlightening parts of this section, where he appears anxious and fidgety when asked questions, unable to make eye contact, talking almost through gritted teeth, all mumbly, only wanting to show off his skills at motorcycle jumps. A couple comments about McQueen's ability to draw eyes on the silver screen through his movement -- playing with his cowboy hat and never stopping shifting around in The Magnificent Seven to take attention off ostensible star Yul Brynner -- only hint at the things that make McQueen interesting, namely, his insecurity and need for attention leading to petulant career choices and jealousies that would lead to him forcing filmmakers to give him the most lines in his films. That is the fascinating stuff of the man's rise, but the interview subjects stop at, "He was driven to win... and he was cool."

It cannot be overstated the number of times "cool" is used in the film. But it is always in reference to the cultural version of the word that refers mostly to the innate ability of a person to be popular, which is not necessarily the thing that set Steve McQueen apart from his peers or those who have arrived on the Hollywood scene since his untimely death from cancer at age 50 in 1980. Those blue eyes were indeed cool, but in the icy sense, calculating, readying for his moment to sneak ahead of his adversaries. His detached demeanor is apparent in the photographs of his personal life and in clips from his work, but it is not commented upon in any meaningful way, with only brushed off mentions of his tendencies to shy away from people for long stretches of time.

When the documentary makes the turn into its final half hour, it gets more poignant when discussing McQueen's personal life. His longtime marriage failed for the same reason so many Hollywood marriages do: He was an almost impossibly good looking and charming person who had a way with the opposite sex and could not (or did not want to) stop himself from succumbing to temptation. But even when the movie gets to discussing his failing relationships, director Jeff Renfroe makes a fatal mistake of putting a grooving, horn-and-bass-driven (but still cheap-sounding) funk track over an interview with ex-wife Neile Adams, who is remarkably gracious in remembering even the biggest betrayals almost fondly, choosing instead to focus on the best parts of her life with McQueen. His flash-in-the-pan marriage to one-time co-star Ali MacGraw is remembered as an all-or-nothing, but mostly all, affair, a happy lark. And his final marriage, to then-23-year-old Barbara Minty McQueen, is treated as Steve finally finding what he is looking for, a note of contentment before the cancer took him. However, it never feels earned -- documentaries should spin narratives, too, in order to be effective storytelling tools -- in the Minty McQueen moments because of the "oh well" shrugs that ended his previous marriages. If it were only one ex-wife not opening up about the lesser sides of her ex-husband, that would be attributable to her not wanting to speak about personal matters, but when it's three different women all saying largely flattering things, it sets off the skepticism alarm bells.

Renfroe likely didn't ask the harder questions, instead caring about an empty, surface-level icon rather than the deeper neuroses and demons that made his iconic status possible. There are hints of a film that might teach an audience something or share something of real value, but they remain hints amid a hagiography of cool.

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