Somewhere in my list of cinephile pet peeves is the notion, loosely held, that direction doesn’t matter much in documentaries–that a filmmaker need only find an interesting subject and turn on the camera. Direction does matter.
Take An Affair of the Heart for instance. There’s enough material here for three good documentaries but only one great one. Unfortunately the great one never takes shape, leaving the elements of the good ones to fight each other for our attention.
The core of the film focuses not on 80s pop icon Rick Springfield but a handful of his most devoted fans. One by one they try (and mostly fail) to articulate the special bond between themselves and Springfield. The first act of the documentary is the strongest as it is the most sincere. But when the film tries to probe deeper it flounders. It raises the question–entirely through surrogates–of whether that the bond may not be entirely healthy or helpful, but having raised that question it refuses to pursue or rebut it.
For the most part the Springfield groupies claim their husbands and families support an innocent indulgence in nostalgia, but when one dad says his kids told him “I hate Rick” because they seem to be aware the singer is the cause of all of mommy’s road trips, the film never follows up on the simmering conflict. Conversely, the women claim their obsession is no different than that of guys who get together (and often travel or spend money) to watch football. It’s a valid point, put rather than ante up and take a side the documentary prefers to balance every critique with an endorsement.
Another way the direction hurts the film is in its seeming lack of self awareness. One witness describes the audience response to a Springfield song on a cruise in hushed, reverential tones, but the actual footage of the same event doesn’t jive with his recollection. I would have bumped An Affair of the Heart a full star if at any point it had invited comparison between Springfield’s followers and groupies for any other 80s band or icon. (I’ve heard much more educated people speak in the same reverential tones about U2, among others.) Is there really something distinctive about this music, or is there something inherently spiritually intoxicating about the rock concert in general? Or is it just about being noticed by celebrity?
Even with all those complaints, the film mostly succeeds because the fans seem to genuinely adore Springfield and he appears genuinely interested in engaging them. Is there a connection between his depression and a categorical need to be loved? Is the “connection” between him and his fans that everyone keeps alluding to one of codependency? A smarter film might have asked such questions and been a more valuable sociological inquiry. An Affair of the Heart probably won’t be of too much interest to anyone who is not a Springfield fans. By contrast, documentaries like Running from Crazy or Far Out Isn’t Far Enough are capable of engaging even those who don’t know much about Mariel Hemmingway or Tomi Ungerer. The difference? Those films give us portraits of artists capable of enthralling us in the current moment; Heart asks us only to witness those whose infatuation was forged decades ago and never died.
Still, if you have a guilty pleasure on your Ipod or a chord of music that transports you back instantly to your youth, you will understand these people. You may not share their enthusiasm for the particular artist, but you won’t mock them. You will “get it.” At least I did.
An Affair of the Heart is available from FilmBuff on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Movies on Demand beginning in May 2014.