For those who know Melvin Van Peebles only as the creator of the seminal blaxploitation flick Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, this documentary will be pretty shocking. While director Joe Angio (TONY's recently departed editor-in-chief) certainly acknowledges his subject's cinematic success, he also explores Van Peebles the novelist, recording artist, Broadway impresario, Wall Street trader and international lover.
Structurally, the film gives a chronological history of Van Peebles's exploits: his early bookish years, his stint as an avant-garde writer and filmmaker in France, and his career-making decision to write, direct, edit, produce, score and star in 1971's Sweetback, the highest-grossing independent film of its time. Angio has dug up fascinating archival footage of Van Peebles and his projects, including a rare glimpse of his Tony- nominated musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death and multiple clips of him chatting effortlessly in French. Peppered throughout are contemporary interviews with the likes of Spike Lee, film critic Elvis Mitchell and Van Peebles's ex-lovers and three children to place his work—and life—in a larger historical context.
But the movie truly shines when Van Peebles speaks for himself. A recognizable underground pop-culture icon with soulful eyes, droopy mustache and ubiquitous cigar, the septuagenarian Van Peebles is as outrageous, profane and charming as ever, the kind of man you'd invite for dinner and end up waking up next to in the morning. (Opens Fri; Film Forum.)—Raven Snook