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September 4, 2020

written by: Rob Christopher and Barry Gifford

produced by: Michael Glover Smith and Rob Christopher

directed by: Rob Christopher

rated: not rated

runtime: 75 min.

U.S. release date: September 2, 2020 & September 6, 2020 (DWF-LA Film Festival)

Calling “Roy’s World” a documentary does this work of art a disservice. It’s not that the film is beyond categorization, it’s just that there’s so much going on here that it’s almost unfair to describe it in such a manner. It should simply just be experienced and then discussed and then championed. While it does offers a look back at Chicago in the 50’s and 60’s through the semi-autobiographical lens of of author/poet Barry Gifford (hence the subtitle),  the way in which director Rob Christopher goes about delivering these recollections is not only engaging, it’s creatively infectious and feels unexpectedly alive. It’s as if you’re watching a life performance for the first time of an artist you’ve just discovered. 

What Christopher provides is a transportive, “show, don’t tell” approach that pulls you in with a descriptive tour of people and places and feelings that feel familiar, even though they’re coming from Barry Gifford’s past. It presents a Chicago that is long gone, but could probably be found today in certain areas if you looked close enough. There’s a history being told in “Roy’s World”, one that lies underneath all that Chicago currently offers and one that has similarities, for better or worse, of life in the Windy City today. 

Memories are on display in visual form and are guided by Gifford himself, as well as the distinctively rich voices of Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, and Lily Taylor, all of whom read excerpts from Gifford’s The Roy Stories, a collection of semi-autobiographical tales that follow the titular boy’s coming-of-age experiences with his divorced mother and father. These coming-of-age reflections are broken up into vivid segments that are unveiled like chapters from a book. Titles like “Role Model” and “A Good Man to Know” detail memories of his father, “The Wedding” recalls a certain disdain for the new guy his mother married, and there’s also, “Bad Girls”, which recounts his teen years meeting neighborhood girls with his buddies. There are set in a range from street life in Chicago (from downtown to the north side neighborhood of Rogers Park) to his trips to Southern Florida with his father, many of which consist of time spent in fancy old hotels that now seem like geographic relics inhabited by ghosts or torn down and replaced. 

The observant tales told of Gifford’s Roy are poetic, poignant, and comical manner, but what’s most memorable is what Christopher and editor Marianna Milhorat use to bring them to life. Glimpses of old Chicago (from the Chicago Board of Education) footage is used as if flipping through a View Master, as if some of Gifford’s own photos which document snippets of life he remembers. Artful animated sequences by Lilli Carre and Kevin Eskew offer a welcome variety to the visuals used, asking viewers to engage with their imagination in maybe even consider how they would view their own stories in such bold and creative ways. 

The distinct or faded images shared – from black-and white to vibrant color, of day time or stark night, in the heat of summer to the frozen midwest tundra – run concurrent with a an intoxicating jazz score from Jason Adasiewicz (“The Interruptors”) that noodles its way throughout the entire film, with flaring horns, tingling xylophones, and mesmerizing drumbeats. The music enhances the viewing experience, becoming as much of an integral character as the people we see on the screen and the voices we hear, culminating in something that feels like a spoken word jam session. 

Such a captivating collaboration of sound and vision confirms that the real standout of “Roy’s World” is how Rob Christopher delivers Gifford to us.

Ultimately, it makes no difference whether or not you know of Gifford before taking in “Roy’s World”. Christopher dives right in, trusting viewers will catch on and you will quite effortlessly. Those who know Gifford solely from filmmaker David Lynch’s adaptations of his weird and wild neo noir novels “Wild at Heart” and “Lost Highway”, will likely be curious about the author’s other notable written work. That’s certainly where I’m at now after watching this. 

Back to that “live performance” comparison…watching “Roy’s World” is akin to that feeling you get when a trusted friend introduces to an artist they’ve been talking about for some time. The more you experience the art – in this case, Gifford’s storytelling prowess – the more obvious it becomes how his work offers us a way in which to see our own past and present in a new light. 

RATING: ***1/2

you can watch “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago” THIS SUNDAY, September 6th @ Dances With Films LA livestreaming at 2:00PM/Pacific, followed immediately by a Q&A featuring Barry Gifford, Lili Taylor & Rob Christopher tickets/info:

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