Directed by Kirsten Johnson — Distributed by Netflix.
A couple of years ago, I saw Martin Scorsese’s documentary short film Italianamerican, which is basically a very personal documentary wherein the filmmaker films his parents, has them tell their life stories, and even reveal their best recipes. Since I first saw Italianamerican, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about the best way to celebrate your parents in the documentary format. This made me very interested in Kirsten Johnson’s documentary about her father, Dick Johnson is Dead, but when I sat down to watch her documentary, I was slightly trepidatious about what film I was about to watch. The title is obviously ominous, but the poster looks more like a comedy than anything else. I eventually came to realize that Kirsten Johnson’s documentary was the total package. Dick Johnson Is Dead is one of the best documentaries of the year.
Where Italianamerican and Dick Johnson Is Dead differ is that one is more momentous than the other. In Italianamerican, Martin Scorsese is documenting an evening together with his parents. The film is about their lives and their heritage, and the film becomes, in a sense, a celebration of their culture and their family. Italianamerican is a wonderful film. However, there is a sense of urgency with regard to Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead. There is a moment in the documentary that hits very hard. Kirsten Johnson is a seasoned documentarian, but, while showing us a video of her and her mother, she reveals that she actually has very little footage of her mother. As a filmmaker, it must be very difficult to know that while you were busy filming others, you maybe forgot to document the lives of the people that matter to you. Kirsten Johnson will not make that mistake again.
Kirsten Johnson’s 86-year-old father, Dick Johnson, is showing signs of dementia, and therefore the documentarian decides to make a project with her father, whose wife also suffered from dementia. Over the course of the documentary’s 89-minute runtime, Kirsten and her father are seen discussing difficult moments in his life and what changes need to happen because of his declining health. This can be difficult to watch, but I was impressed by the ways in which Kirsten approached this project.
Kirsten Johnson turns her father into a star, basically. She and her crew think up these accidental death scenarios, then they put Dick Johnson in front of the camera and ask him to act in multiple scenes depicting his death. These scenes can be both difficult to watch and, for Dick Johnson, difficult to act in. I think there is even a chance that some viewers will deem these scenes to be tasteless, but I imagine that Dick Johnson agreed to his daughter’s experimental project to help her accept the situation that her father is in. Make no mistake, this is also clearly difficult for the documentarian. Understandably, when Kirsten Johnson narrates the film, you can sometimes hear that she may be on the verge of tears. The scenes that she and her crew have imagined are not always shocking or startling, sometimes they can even be sweet or nice. Because she doesn’t just imagine her father’s demise, she also imagines his afterlife. For example, we see Dick Johnson on these bright stage-sets next to actors portraying biblical figures, celebrities, and even his wife. Kirsten even uses the afterlife scenes, in a sense, to grant him wishes that she can never grant in real life.
However, I have mixed feelings about a sequence towards the end of the film, when it, to me, looked and felt like Kirsten Johnson’s experiment inadvertently but legitimately shook one of Dick Johnson’s dear friends. With this sequence, Kirsten wanted to show her father what he really means to his friends and his family, which is admirable, but the reaction of Dick Johnson’s friend reminds you of the gravity of the situation. When I first saw the sequence, I was both moved, startled, and confused. It is, however, one of the only sequences in the film that I have mixed feelings about.
Due to the gravity of the documentary’s premise, it is difficult to recommend Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead to everyone, but if you have the strength to watch this kind of film, then I think you’ll agree that Dick Johnson Is Dead is not just a fantastic documentary but also a moving, albeit deeply personal, celebration of a parent. Ultimately, Kirsten Johnson may be unable to control what happens to her father, but, as a filmmaker, she has chosen to immortalize him in her life’s work, and I think that is a beautiful thought.
8.5 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.