Madison’s tragic comedy icon gets a thorough but flawed documentary
“I Am Chris Farley” screens Saturday, August 8 at the Orpheum.
Madison doesn't have a whole lot by way of famous folks who claim it as their birthplace. I don't mean to cast aspersions on incredibly talented individuals like Gena Rowlands, Bradley Whitford, or Chris Noth, but those folks never really hit marquee status (sorry, Whitford, not gonna count you getting top billing at the Act 10 protests back in 2011). The one guy we as a city can absolutely stake a claim on having thrust into the celebrity stratosphere though, is Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart graduate and larger-than-life comedy legend Chris Farley.
In a touch of perfectly Midwestern humbleness (or maybe just general oversight), one of the biggest comedy stars of a generation was born and raised in Madison, and yet there's really not much we do to draw attention to that fact. Despite Farley repping Madison hard from the comfort of David Letterman's couch, where he was about as regular a guest can be when their time in the spotlight is only a few short years, Farley Avenue runs only six blocks on the near West Side, between University Avenue and Resurrection Catholic Cemetery, where Farley (every rapper’s favorite comedian) is buried. And despite that coincidence, Farley Avenue was named that long before Farley was even born.
There’s a certain belated justice, then, that not only is he finally getting the feature-length documentary treatment with Brent Hodge and Derik Murray’s new film I Am Chris Farley, but that it’s also set to screen in front of a hometown crowd this Saturday at The Orpheum Theatre on State Street. It’s also the first film in more than two years to screen at the Orpheum, which recently has focused almost entirely on live music and comedy. While we’re hopeful that this starts a trend back towards film screenings, this feels like a one-off exception to the new rule.
The documentary itself is a solidly made affair that thankfully never feels like fluff, which you might understandably worry about when you realize that the filmmakers were behind a number of other cookie-cutter-looking "I Am..."-titled documentaries: I Am Evel Knievel, I Am Steve McQueen, I Am Bruce Lee, and coming soon, I Am JFK Jr. (John John!)), I Am I Am I Am, and so forth.
The documentary’s interviews span the whole range of Farley's professional and personal life, and they’re thoughtfully shot and well composed, with each of the subjects contributing some interesting tidbit or emotionally resonant reminiscence. From friends like Pat Finn explaining the ways Farley would show off for ladies at Marquette, to fellow Saturday Night Live writers and cast-members giving you the down low on the roots of some of his best-known sketches, to comedians who followed in his footsteps like Mad TV’s burly over-the-top Will Sasso, they all add dashes of color to Farley’s legacy, however peripheral some may be. In addition to thoroughly wrangling the usual Farley-affiliated suspects, Hodge and Murray toss some surprising oddballs in the mix. You think Bo Derek doesn’t have memories worth sharing about the small amount of screen time she shared with Farley in Tommy Boy? Think again!
The Farley family was clearly very supportive of the film, with his brothers and mother sitting for interviews, taking the audience for a ride past the old family house on Madison’s East Side, and sharing home movies and photos of the young troublemaker. The cameras even catch Kevin Farley, who has an executive producer credit on the film, on stage during a show at the Comedy Club On State (which manages to come off as the only overtly self-serving moment). It’s also clear that no expense was spared to license the appropriate clips from NBC, and the filmmakers also plundered the archives of Second City for footage of Farley on stage working out early characters and scenes, many of which would eventually find broader appeal on SNL.
The one big problem with the film is how easily Farley's life lends itself to the stereotypical Behind The Music-style rise-to-early-fame beginning and live-fast-die-young ending. While the directors certainly capture the vibrancy and sincere joy that Farley conveyed when performing on stage for Second City and on TV with SNLmanaging to hit all the right emotional notes on the way down (spoiler: Bob Saget’s gonna cry), the route Hodge and Murray chose to follow here strikes me as the least challenging or creative. No one's asking for an-art house Farley doc, but the film here so quickly fits itself into that somewhat lazy and played-out narrative that it betrays the fact that, like its “I Am [state your name]” brethren, after its theatrical run this is ultimately destined for the great clearinghouse of just-good-enough content: streaming services.
The friends and family who show up in interview footage clearly have a passion for Farley, taking every opportunity to shore up his legend, but it's ultimately a shame that, with the weak narrative layout and occasionally scattershot interviews (including what felt like a half hour of Christina Applegate sharing her memories of the Matt Foley sketch), the filmmakers' final product doesn't seem to strongly convey that the directors shared the same depth of emotions. The result is a thoroughly entertaining and informative documentary that goes above and beyond my expectations, but since my expectations weren’t incredibly high to begin with, it falls short in the long run.
All my quibbling aside, I can't imagine a better place to watch this film than with a hometown crowd right in the heart of the isthmus. Before the show, you should wander down to the Wisconsin State Historical Society at the other end of State and ask if you can try on Farley’s jacket from Black Sheep. The answer I’ve always gotten is a firm “NO,” but you might have better luck.