FOR THE LOVE OF SPOCK (2016) review
produced by: Joseph Kornbrodt, Kevin Layne, David Zappone & Kai de Mello-Folsom
directed by: Adam Nimoy
runtime: 111 min.
U.S. release date: April 16, 2016 (Tribeca Film Festival), September 9, 2016 (limited/VOD/iTunes/Amazon) and September 23-29, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
When you think of “Star Trek”, it’s hard not to think of anyone other than the most recognizable face of the pop culture phenomenon, that being the arched eyebrows and pointy ears of Spock, as portrayed by Leonard Nimoy. The actor played Mr. Spock for the entire length of the groundbreaking television series (1966-1969) as the chief science office aboard the starship USS Enterprise. Although he played other characters, Nimoy and the half human/half Vulcan were inseparable and it would be the single role he would be known for. “For the Love of Spock” is a documentary that covers how the iconic character has impacted both fandom over the years been and also provides a fascinating look at how it changed Nimoy’s career and personal life. It offers a rare and unique perspective, in that it was directed by his son, Adam Nimoy, who has a very personal involvement obviously and in turn offers viewers a look at growing up under the shadow of that famous Vulcan salute.
Focusing on a particular character of a long-running franchise is an idea with potential, but it has to be the right character. Out of all the “Star Trek” characters, Spock is the best one to focus on. Although originally intended to be a retrospective documentary commemorating this year’s 50th anniversary of “Star Trek”, finding both Leonard and Adam working together on the film. But when Leonard died in 2015, Adam decided to hone the focus of the documentary on his father’s character and certain aspects of his life. It’s a smart decision and one that I can’t recall ever being done, plus Adam is the guy to do it since he has a personal stake in the film’s subject. Having the director also in the film as he interviews other actors and colleagues of Leonard enhances the film even more, enabling Adam to learn a few things about his dad and himself along the process.
“For the Love of Spock” will obviously offer plenty of screen time on the science fiction franchise, but the documentary gets into the early days of Nimoy’s acting career before it kicks into full Spock fandom. As a young man, when his Jewish immigrant parents refusing to support his dream of becoming an actor, Nimoy took it upon himself to earn enough money to leave their Boston neighborhood and travel to Los Angeles in 1949, despite being unsure what to do once he got there. We learn of his various acting gigs prior to “Star Trek”, in both movies and television, during a time when the actors strengthened his work ethic in the performing arts. During this time, we learn that Leonard was the kind of guy who would take any acting opportunity that would come along, knowing there could potentially be a long stretch between jobs in this industry. As Adam recalls, “He hustled his ass off in the ’60s. He could do anything,” and then goes on to list of the numerous jobs his father did outside of the acting profession, just to keep food on the table: he serviced aquarium tanks (that was a thing apparently, when dental offices started incorporating them into their waiting room experience), drove a cab, serviced vending machines, ran an ice cream parlor and managed an apartment building. As Leonard worked, his wife Sandra Zober (whom he married in 1954) would be at home raising their daughter Julie (who also appears in interviews) and Adam, at their home in Westwood, Los Angeles.
Then, in the mid-60s, writer/producer Gene Roddenberry came along with his strange new project for a science fiction television series. He specifically pursuing Nimoy to play an alien on “Star Trek” after watching the actor in a 1965 episode of “The Lieutenant”. Nimoy took the job, not knowing the role would become the most popular character he’d be known for. Obviously, “For the Love of Spock” spends a decent amount of time focusing on the beginning and rise of the show, looking at the production of the show and also how it was initially received by audiences. From the start, it was a controversial show since there was really nothing else like it with such a diverse cast and a lean and tall actor who, when dressed as Spock, was deemed “Satanic looking” by viewers, especially ones in the Bible Belt. Even the network has reservations about Spock’s look, but Roddenberry stood his ground and the character eventually became the face of the show. Once Star Trek really took off, Spock’s face would be everywhere – lunch boxes, bed sheets and on the cover of hundreds of magazines.
What I found most enlightening was learning how involved Leonard was in shaping who Spock was and what he’d become known for. The actor was involved in the origin of Spock’s distinctive characteristics – the Vulcan salute and mind-meld and the infamous paralyzing nerve pinch – showing how integral Nimoy was in forming a more layered presence to the observant and intelligent character.
Growing up with this was crazy and cool, the director recalls, sharing how their mail had to be delivered by a truck due to all the fan/hate mail. The whole family would get involved in reading piles of mail and addressing fans. Leonard had no clue it would come to this and thought nothing of leaving his name and address in the local phone book – that is, until fans would show up at their door. “People were stealing leaves and grass from our front yard,” Adam Nimoy remembers in disbelief. Touching on the home life in the Nimoy household benefits the documentary, as Adam looks back on an often absentee parent who worked around the clock, agreeing to the show’s publicity efforts and personal appearances, laboring to remain visible during his time on the show. This is when Leonard’s alcoholism began to creep into his routine, as the actor pursued an outlet to the demands of the job. So, there was a ton of life lived during those three seasons of the show, but for Leonard and his family, it transformed their lives.
Most of the coverage here may not be new to Trekkies, but it’s nevertheless fascinating to see if all collected here and listening to Leonard’s voice (through talking head bits or narration voice over, from decades ago) as he recollects this time in his career, brings the viewer in a little closer to the material. It’s during this time where Adam injects snippets of his conversations with the surviving members of the show: Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner. All of them are fond of the Leonard and have specific memories to draw from. Shatner recalls approaching Roddenberry once the became hugely successful, complaining that the guy with the pointy ears was more popular with fans than the captain of the Enterprise. He shares how the show’s creator responded by telling him that if Spock works, then so does the show and Shatner admits how true that answer was.
Indeed Kirk and Spock would go on to become one the most recognizable duos in pop culture history and with DeForest Kelly’s Bones McCoy, a contentious and compatible trio was formed. “They are the yin and yang in front of the camera,” George Takei shares of Shatner and Nimoy. Shatner agrees and then adds a playful jab at the singing endeavors he and Nimoy shared. “He was a better singer than I was,” says Shatner. “He could hold a note off-key, but he could hold it.” Of course, Adam then includes numerous clips of his father’s crooning – specifically in a revised episode from “Star Trek”, where the director replacing whatever originally appeared on the monitor before the Enterprise crew with Leonard’s awesome music video for the Hobbit-loving ditty, “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” as they respond in horror. It’s quite funny and good fun and it’s a good way to show the audience Adam’s sense of humor.
By 1969, the television show may have been cancelled, but its syndication deal created the type of cult status it became known for, making its first convention in 1972 a rousing success. Seeing clips of a joyful Nimoy speaking before a throng of fans at the convention brought a smile to my face. Fan conventions and cosplay was still something so new back then (nothing like the mad house we see now) and I can only imagine how special and unique that moment must have been for those fans.
Adam covers the years between the “Star Trek” television series and the movie series by including his father’s Spock-related appearances and the other roles he would take on. There was the role of Paris in the “Misson: Impossible” television series, the agent who was an ex-magician and make-up expert, Nimoy portrayed during seasons four and five of the show. He also had a part as a creepy psychiatrist in Philip Kaufman’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, which became something of a cult classic. Those were two of his most notable roles in the 70s, but he also hosted and narrated the television series “In Search of…”, which investigated paranormal or unexplained events or subjects. This was also a time when Leonard would dive into numerous stage roles in theater as well, appearing as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and many other roles.
Understandably, Adam doesn’t really delve into his father’s rejection of the Spock character during the 70s that much, but he does include the legal wrangling involved in bringing Spock to the big-screen for the first time in 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. We’re also shown clips of Nimoy recalling the surprising impact the (**Spoiler Alert**) death of Spock in the second movie “The Wrath of Khan” (1982) had on the actor personally, as he was faced with the realization of never playing the character again. Of course, that didn’t happen. Nimoy would be resurrected as both Spock and also serve as director, helming the third “The Search for Spock” and fourth “The Voyage Home” (my personal favorite) with the original cast. I was hoping for more footage of Nimoy on the set of these two films, but alas, there’s only so much that can be covered. Those two movies were such hits that they provided Nimoy with other directing opportunities, such as “Three Men and a Baby” and “The Good Mother” in the late 80s.
Nimoy would return to the role of Spock for “Star Trek” the rebooted 2009 movie from producer/director J. J. Abrams, alongside the alternate universe/younger version of the character, as portrayed by Zachary Quinto and would make his final appearance in 2013’s “Star Trek Into Darkness“. Adam includes interviews he conducting with the actors from the new movies, such as Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban and Quinto, who shared a special bond with Nimoy since he took on the mantle of continuing with a new and different interaction of Spock. These actors talk about the impact Star Trek has had in their lives, from their childhood to their acting careers as adults, as well as what it was like working alongside Nimoy.
Throughout the film, we also hear from other Spock admirers, both from actors and specialists in the science and space exploration fields. There’s Jason Alexander (who does a great Kirk) as well a few from “The Big Bang Theory”, such as actors Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik and show creator Bill Prady, all of whom share how and why the character of Spock is celebrated in geekdom and on the show. We also hear from scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson and NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, who was inspired to pursue his career from watching “Star Trek”, specifically Spock’s problem-solving abilities.
Overall, the documentary lives up to its title. Spock is a beloved character (personally, my favorite “Star Trek” character) and although the tone of the film only occasionally goes dark, as it briefly touches on Leonard’s addiction, divorce and contentious relationship with Adam, it is mostly a vibrant, funny and touching celebration of the character and the indelible actor who played him.
What’s most striking is how “For the Love of Spock” seems to turn in a form of therapeutic catharsis for Adam Nimoy. As the director admits to his own past struggles with addictions, which contributed to added tensions between him and his father, there is a relatable sadness conveyed. It’s surprising and rewarding to see a director (who is naturally so invested in his subject) be so vulnerable and open, since documentaries usually find directors staying behind the camera. Adam includes a powerful letter of explanation written by his father in 1973, reading parts of it throughout the film as a dramatic explanation/confession, during a time when their father/son relationship was at its most strenuous.
Despite its sheen of adoration, “For the Love of Spock”, maintains its honesty as it commits to identify the man before the half-Vulcan, painting a portrait of an actor and father who lived an unimaginable life.