[DOC NYC 2021] THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN -- A Glimpse Behind the Curtain of One of the Greatest Entertainers of All Time
Review by Sean Boelman
Charlie Chaplin is without a doubt one of the greatest entertainers to have ever lived, and so his career has been chronicled many times in documentary form. However, Peter Middleton and James Spinney do the seemingly impossible with The Real Charlie Chaplin, creating something legitimately unique.
The movie tells the story of the legendary comedic actor Charlie Chaplin, peeling back the curtain to reveal the truth avout who he actually was. The thing that makes Chaplin so special is that he was around for one of the biggest changes Hollywood has ever made — the transition from silent to sound film — and he was one of the rare people to be able to make that jump successfully. And as such, his story serves as an interesting case study into this period of change.
Middleton and Spinney make the wise decision of not telling his story purely chronologically, thus avoiding the pitfalls of a traditional biography. Although the movie explores his life in rough order, the emphasis here is more on themes and ideas, giving the filmmakers the freedom to move around a bit if there is a purpose to it.
The film does a very good job of exploring many of its themes, chief among them what it means to live in the spotlight. Middleton and Spinney dissect the public image of Chaplin in a very interesting way, and relate it to his very different private life. It’s this duality that is the focus of the movie.
One of the main benefits of this approach is that it really humanizes Chaplin. The documentary discusses how cinephiles often see Chaplin more as his famous characters than the person he was, but challenges the audience to see beyond the slapstick comedy to relate to him as a flawed individual.
The parts of the film which detail some of the more difficult portions of Chaplin’s life and career definitely have a significant emotional impact. It’s eye-opening to see a figure that is so universally beloved have such a tumultuous life behind the scenes, really putting it into perspective what we should value in life.
For the most part, Middleton and Spinney build their movie up of archive footage and footage taken from Chaplin’s extensive filmography. It’s great to see some of this preserved footage, as it’s a great reminder as to why the world fell in love with Chaplin in the first place. There is also a narration, and while it isn’t bad, it is perhaps a tad unnecessary as the footage often speaks for itself.
The Real Charlie Chaplin is a must-see documentary for all cinephiles because of the intimate insight it offers into one of the greatest movie stars who ever lived. There have been plenty of biographies about Chaplin, but this one stands out above the rest.
The Real Charlie Chaplin is screening at the 2021 DOC NYC film festival, which runs November 10-28.