Lars Movin and Steen Moller Rasussen co-directed this documentary on the latter part of William S. Burroughs’ life, when a series of reading tours helped to revive his career and bring him to a higher level of celebrity.
With his deadpan demeanor and a curmudgeonly voice that brought unexpected resonance to his surreal and sarcastically humorous writing, Burroughs was a natural performer that delighted both literary snobs and youthful punk culture devotees. His appeal reached a pinnacle when he turned up on “Saturday Night Live” in 1981 for an unlikely guest reading of his avant-garde work (complete with “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing behind him).
Much of this film is centered on Burroughs’ October 1983 tour of Scandinavia, especially a stop in Copenhagen that was billed as a major cultural event. For those who are well versed in Burroughs’ life and writing, the film offers a rich enhancement to his remarkable canon – especially the Copenhagen footage, which has never been released before (a near-complete video record of his Danish visit is part of the DVD’s extras).
Yet the depth of research and presentation in the film leaves much to be desired. Despite much talk about his late-life painting, the filmmakers fail to provide any glimpses of his canvases. Even worse, significant aspects of his biography that shaped his career and public recognition (his disastrous domestic life, his late-life heroin problems, even his celebrated narration of the re-release of the silent film “Witchcraft Through the Ages”) never receive mention. Burroughs fans may be able to overlook that, but anyone coming to the subject for the first time will only get a half-told story.