Director: Roy Tighe
Stars: Richard Lett, Roy Tighe, Graeme Morgan
I make it a point to seldom review documentary films. This is for several reasons, chief among them being that the goal of documentarians is an ever elusive affair. Some may look to capture life as it is, flies on the wall aiming only to observe. While the Herzog-ian minds of the world will insert themselves, perverting the essence of objectivity with nuanced manipulation of the audience. One is not better than the other (unless you’re a biased Herzog fan like myself), and many filmmakers fall somewhere in the middle. But the air of subjectivity in the aim of the creatives makes it hard to judge. And as a critic (and much to my dismay) I do find myself to be somewhat of a judge. On the verdict of whether or not I believe you should watch Never Be Done: The Richard Glen Lett Story, my answer will have to be a resounding ‘yes’.
Again, this is hard for me. Much of this review may be my loose—and perhaps misguided—views on the aim of director, Roy Tighe and his crew (who I will now refer to as Tighe and Co., assuming that’s alright with you). But in an effort to best describe my own ‘subjective’ to bridge the gap into an ‘objective endorsement’, I must trust my instincts. And my instincts tell me that this is a surprisingly touching film.
If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, as I imagine many of you may be considering its modest drop on Amazon video a few months ago, the story revolves around Richard Lett, a professional comedian/alcoholic as we watch him transition through tumultuous phases in his life over the course of several years. I generally refrain from spoilers in my reviews, but unfortunately I will need to give some loose context to the circumstances surrounding Richard’s life, so if you’re allergic to critical analysis that devolves plot details, this is your warning before you break out in hives (you are welcome to skip to the last paragraph if it behooves you).
Upon meeting the central character, Tighe and Co. capture two things effortlessly: 1) Richard is an extremely gifted artist, navigating a world in which he can weave words and lyricisms into nuanced jokes and stories that eagerly enrapture their intended audience. 2) He’s a bad person. I don’t say this lightly, and in fact the only reason I say it at all is because I feel even Richard is likely to agree with me. In the first act we grow to know him. This is a man who laments that he’s seemingly the only professional in Canada getting kicked out of comedy clubs on a regular basis; a man who romanticizes the ideals of renegades and views political correctness as a hinderance to his effectiveness. This is a man who casually insults, flippantly encourages and dismisses, and often balks at the notion of civility. This is a man embittered at the world around him, using it as fuel to be spiteful in an effort to be funnier. This is a man who drinks and smokes to excess, admits to heinous acts of irredeemable deviance, and spits in the face of his critics. And this man hits rock bottom.
The juxtaposition established between Lett’s allure and his debilitating, self destructive behavior immediately elicits a response of fascination, and thus Tighe follows Lett around like a school kid interested in the drunkard neighbor. Yet the most striking aspect of the film comes from the growth of Lett in tandem with the growth of his observer. A fatal curiosity builds into a dangerous obstacle, and once conquered the path revealed seems to be one of enlightenment for both parties. In simply observing Lett on his journey, Tighe—and by extension, his crew—seemingly also grow, establishing through lines and poignant narrative cues that pave the way for the self discovery. The mistake would be to think that it is only Lett that becomes a rehabilitated person by the end when the final product indicates a story much more rounded than it may altogether appear.
As alluded to above, yes, Lett does find the path to redemption. But not before hitting bottom in ways that may have seemed inevitable yet never more harrowing and real. And by the final moments, the audience finds themselves grateful for the people that seemed to ground Letts—his daughter and long time friend who carry him from poverty on their shoulders—and you worry about what could have been so different, and what *is* so different for so many who fall prey to their addictions. For a film about comedy, it is largely humorless, and in that regard I actually find myself respecting its vision.
But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t find some flaw(s) in the material. The key problem with Never Be Done is not in its narrative depiction of the arc, but rather how we get to it. The juvenile fascination with Lett seems to stem from an admiration for his brand of comedy prior to the Boyhood-esque endurance in filming him over the course of years. He waxes and wanes in weight and health with flippant specificity. Characters familiar with Lett provide talking heads that offer little context for legacy beyond the fact that there is one. And overall, the timeline becomes obscured leaving the audience to fill in pieces until the film dedicates itself to a more linear format, only occasionally falling back into its habits again. As a result, the pacing of Never Be Done can feel jarring. At times it even tricks its audience into thinking it is still firmly at a distance from its subject until the more intimate moments of the film reveal themselves and demonstrate its true heart. Lett’s battle with cancer is glossed over in favor of his struggle with alcoholism, and it feels as though the film occasionally fights itself on what it wants its true subject matter to be. It’s a tough criticism, particularly when one considers that Tighe and Co. must have shuffled through thousands of hours of filming in order to settle on their narrative puzzle. Nevertheless, it remains the issue that I fixate on the most particularly in how it prepares us for the final act.
Lett is let off easy in the film’s final third. Whereas he begins as a complicated character, the film does settle with a light brush in the final ten minutes or so, creating a symbiotic relationship between Lett as a narrative arc of redemption and Lett the man. We are not shown much of Richard’s life in his pacified state, and instead we are told about his perspective of his wrong doings. The objectivity that once saddled the audience with a deeply unsettling character becomes instead a journey that clearly dictates to us its meaning: the diamond mined from coal, so to speak. Where I find this problematic is in how it jarringly subverts the language of the film. While I applaud so much of Tighe and Co.’s work in growing to find their narrative, I simultaneously find myself frustrated that they overworked to try to get us to understand what can be seen so clearly. In my mind, Richard Lett is absolutely a changed man now. And seeing that for itself would’ve better exemplified his growth while also maintaining an edge of consistency in the visual narrative.
All that being said, the credits roll on the perfect image of Lett, a hearty bit healthier and far more grateful for his life. The secret sauce in the story of Richard Lett is undoubtedly Lett himself, and seeing his journey, no matter how unsubtle at times it may be, imbues the audience with a deep sense of satisfaction and hope. I have no earthly clue what Lett has been doing since the final moments of the film, but I leave this review knowing in my heart that he is happier, and while he is far from a perfect man, I know he has offered the world in his orbit a bit of happiness as well. I leave looking forward to the future work of documentarian Roy Tighe, his camera man Graeme Morgan, and the other crew members who saddled with them for an expansive journey about redemption and self discovery. It’s a story I’m proud to have been a part of as a viewer, and one that I encourage you to seek out in the near future. 8/10