by Tony Dayoub
Among the most fascinating movies never made is the one that lends a new documentary its title, Jodorowsky's Dune. Alejandro Jodorowsky is the passionate Chilean filmmaker behind surreal cult movies El Topo and The Holy Mountain. As his admirers grew, especially within the cinematic and pop cultural elite, Jodorowsky expressed his desire to make a film adaptation of Frank Herbert's complex, sci-fi epic Dune his next project. Jodo, as his friends called him, wanted his Dune to move the medium forward with the same verve Kubrick's 2001 did. But he intended it to more explicitly alter a viewer's state of consciousness, in effect doing Kubrick one better by offering a moviegoer the same effects as LSD without the need to take the hallucinogen.
That's an ambitious place to start for any filmmaker but, as director Frank Pavich proves in his quirky interviews with Jodo, if there's anyone that could do it, it's him. Jodorowsky's Dune lays bare how thoroughly planned and highly executable Jodo's version of Dune was as he prepared it in the mid-1970s. The director pulls out a thick, cleanly laid out book consisting of storyboards, costume/character/ship designs, and annotations that make a compelling case for some of Jodo's more outlandish claims. Jodo had all but signed David Carradine, Salvador Dalí, Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles to play the film's key characters. Pink Floyd was to score the Atreides portions of the film as soon as they wrapped The Dark Side of the Moon. And the production and special effects were designed by artists Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, Jean "Mœbius" Giraud and filmmaker Dan O'Bannon, his team of "spiritual warriors" that would later be poached by Ridley Scott for his feature Alien after Jodo's Dune was aborted.
Pavich is exhaustive as he argues that Jodo just might have been onto something had his Dune been allowed to go forward. He interviews critics, other cult directors, and nearly everyone who had directly worked in the film's pre-production stage, including the money man behind Jodorowsky's early films, Michel Seydoux. They are all convincing in their assertions that had any studio been willing to risk involvement with Jodo's vision, the payoff would have been worth it. As director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) puts it, "What if the first film of that nature had been Dune and not Star Wars? Would the whole megabucks blockbuster structure have been altered?" The most mesmerizing interviewee is Jodo himself who, in his mid-80s, is still a potent force of nature whose mad, animated ravings are infectious and run the gamut from thunderous indignation to wailing lamentation. One memorable highlight is Jodo's description of forcing himself to attend a screening of David Lynch's mediocre version and the gradual displacement of his funereal mood by giddy happiness as he realized how awful the final release really was. But when one hears Jodorowsky's own anecdotes about how he convinced eccentrics like Dalí and Welles to join the cast—in the case of the dangerously heavy Welles, hiring him his own personal chef—one realizes how disciplined even the production of Lynch's turkey probably was.
Pavich fumbles in selecting film writers Devin Faraci and Drew McWeeny as the only critical voices in the documentary. While there's room for the kind of observations the two critics make about Jodo's version of Dune and its influence on subsequent science fiction/fantasy films, a lot of it is couched in language aimed at their fanboy contingent of readers, particularly in the case of Faraci. It'd have been interesting to hear from a writer active at the time Jodo's folly was being mounted. Ultimately, the absence of such a perspective isn't enough to detract from Pavich's intriguing behind-the-scenes oral history. But I suspect such an individual would have offered a dissenting voice casting some doubt on the certainty that the titular movie in Jodorowsky's Dune was ever a viable film project to begin with.