Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

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Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton


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Years before the Beats arrived in San Francisco, the city exploded with artistic expressions – painting, theatre, film, and poetry. At its center was the groundbreaking filmmaker and poet James Broughton. “Big Joy” explores Broughton's passionate embrace of a life of pansexual transcendence and a fiercely independent mantra: ‘follow your own weird’. His remarkable story spans the post-war San Francisco Renaissance, his influence on the Beat generation, escape to Europe during the McCarthy years, a lifetime of acclaim for his joyous experimental films and poetry celebrating the human body, finding his soul mate at age 61, and finally, his ascendancy as a revered bard of sexual liberation.
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What an appropriately titled movie! Not only a moniker used by James Broughton to introduce and identify himself late in his always interesting life, ‘Big Joy’ also aptly evokes the effervescent tone and quick-whip pace that this generous documentary utilizes to splash onto the big screen with unabashed abandon. From the bubbly, light-hearted original score and thoughtful editing to the pure appreciation and love that is both lyrically and ingenuously expressed by a number of friends, family members, and colleagues of James in talking head interviews, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton takes you on a fantastically uplifting journey through the post-World War II San Francisco underground poetry and avant-garde film renaissance in context of one its most poignantly remembered pioneers and important iconic players.

James “Big Joy” Broughton was at the epicenter of the San Francisco artistic explosion in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Counterculture shifts in painting, theatre, film, and poetry were adding to the expressions in literature that key icons Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burrough, and Jack Kerouac of the Beat generation were responsible for catapulting into the American landscape. Considered by many to be the father of West Coast experimental filmmaking, James Broughton’s films broke taboos, and won awards, from the Cannes Film Festival’s Prix de Fantasie Poetique in 1954 to accolades from Royal Film Institute of Brussels, from a residency at the National Theatre in London to a lifetime achievement award in experimental film by the American Film Institute in 1989.

The opening credits of Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton burst at the seams with an energy and pace that set up the overall feeling of the documentary. A collage of colorful title cards and captions blended with a cacophony of sound bites and musical exclamations thrusts Big Joy into a lively and thrilling ride that eviscerates any fears of anticipated mundane familiarity and unwarranted boredom that correlates with the stigma and cold reception that accompany the biased reputation of talking head documentaries among mainstream crowds. The title sequence along with the closing credits are joyous. Jami Sieber’s and Evan Schiller’s bouncy, vaudevillian-inspired jazz score is a tremendous asset to the film’s evocative jubilance and joviality. The original music contrasts beautifully with the film’s quieter and sadder recollections of James Broughton’s early childhood.

One of the most emotionally resonant moments in the film, and a testament to the impeccable judgment of directing team Stephen Silha and Eric Slade, occurs when Suzanna Hart, James’ wife and mother of 2 of his children, guilelessly expresses her pain as a direct result of the end of their 15 year marriage. Her retrospective recollection and comprehension of the situation along with the manifestation of her broken heart gives perspective to James’ life-long battle for sexual liberation and, even more so, the emancipation of his finding true love with a young man 35 years his junior. Hart’s melancholy vividly contrasts with James’ happiness and adds an emotionally wrenching depth to the proceeding epilogue of his life portrayed in the film. This almost silent moment, in addition to an equally powerful moment with James’s and Suzanna’s now adult son, add context to the preceding free spirited events of James’ adulthood and the early childhood depression he faced in reference to his own mother. It’s an elevating moment that showcases a bravery and courage to share a personal pain and sadness in a film that before seemed not more than a love letter to a forlorn cultural icon.

The generosity of sharing extends to the footage of James’ wonderful films. Big Joy makes ample use of the best record of James’ work and legacy. We get to see a great amount of his contributions to the surrealist movement in film from his early experiments with co-directors Sidney Peterson and Kermit Sheets like The Potted Psalm (1946), Loony Tom (1951), and The Pleasure Garden (1953) to his more personal masterpieces The Bed (1968) and This Is It (1970). Early on in the film, Pauline Kael, the mother of modern film criticism and perhaps the most important historical figure in the criticism field of journalism, reveals her own personal anecdotes and relationship with James Broughton. We get to hear, in her own voice, her words on Broughton’s work in film ("...a perfect film" in reference to This Is It) and poetry. It’s an absolute privilege to have Pauline Kael as part of any document. Her presence here adds not just a brevity, but a legitimacy to the film that is essential to its success.

 And throughout the entirety of the film’s length, we are treated to multiple readings and artfully depicted portraits of his poetry and personal journal entries and letters. There’s an animated sequence of one his darker poems in the film that reminded me of the musical scenes from Disney’s Fantasia. In a way, Big Joy shares an objective to that 1940 musical masterpiece. Fantasia, through color and the magic of animation, brings classical music to an audience through an accessible medium.

Big Joy uses similar techniques when illustrating the freedom and creativity that poetry can produce. Poetry, when tapped and nurtured, can be the source of joy and progressive personal enhancement, and sometimes cathartic and therapeutic closure and forgiveness for so many individuals. That in and of itself can lead to powerful and influential movements that can change and progress humanity’s growth. Sometimes tinged with bitter and repressed regret but hardly cynical, and always passionate and humorously flavored, James’ words may outlast his films in their simple dignity and power.

Before this film, I had only heard of the name James Broughton in passing and of his poetry even less so. Because of this film, and more specifically, because of the filmmakers’ skill and craft, I have actively sought out more work of Big Joy’s, the man. I commend the film Big Joy for not just introducing me to an artist’s life, but for sparking an interest and igniting a continuing education in liberal arts that hopefully will add to the breadth of culture in my adulthood and to others’ whose future work will help to inspire another generation. In the end, the film is a successful document of a man’s life, but is a triumph of evoking the spirit that man’s legacy has, and will, continue to inspire.


Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton is available now on DVD and Video On Demand at Netflix Instant, Amazon Video, Apple iTunes, and Google Play. The film plays a Summer Theatrical Tour in the following cities: Los Angeles (6/10, 6/12), New York (6/18), Seattle (6/19), Dallas (6/27), Austin (8/27) with additional dates and cities to be announced. See for more information.


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A Poignant and, well, Joyous Portrait of an American Artist
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In the end, the film is a successful document of a man’s life, but is a triumph of evoking the spirit that man’s legacy has, and will, continue to inspire.
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