November 3, 2013
Most documentaries about individuals work towards a more linear proposal - person is born, grows up, becomes famous, trouble ensues, etc. (Think of it as the Behind the Music approach to storytelling). One of the great aspects about I Am Bruce Lee is that it not only provides a clear narrative, it puts his life and work into a really wide perspective.
In other words, readers, if you think all Lee did was kung fu movies....you're in for a pleasant surprise.
Granted, it would have to be - besides actors and directors, a large number of athletes and professional martial artists discuss Lee's life and career. As a Bruce Lee fan myself, the documentary had me watching it repeatedly - not just because it features clips of his movies, but because it really delves into Lee's personal philosophy, and work ethic....and really shows Lee as more than just a great actor and athlete: it really shows how he was a "Renaissance man".
(And if you need an example, take a look at how Brain Pickings discusses Lee's concept of "being like water". It's so good, I wish that I had written it)
There are several really great highlights, including footage from Game of Death, Lee's uncompleted final film; great footage from Lee's past as a child actor; and some really interesting perspectives from a variety of unlikely individuals. (Al Bundy is a martial artist in real life? Who knew?) The only major misstep - and one which threatens the overall arc of the film - is when one individual claims that Lee "invented" mixed martial arts. Discussion about that particular subject - probably spurred more by a production entity than anything else - seems to be unnecessarily distracting, and doesn't really go anywhere. Focusing on Lee as an athletic role model is one thing; this particular discussion appears more self-serving than anything else. Thankfully, I Am Bruce Lee quickly moves through this conversation, and gets back on track. (Surprisingly, it even covers some of the conspiracy theories around his death, and Lee's widow puts it into perspective. This sequence is a must-watch, if only because it deserves to be seen).
Bruce Lee accomplished much in his short life, and his films show a man whose fighting style shared a hard-hitting impact and stylistic grace simultaneously. Action films of the past 40 years owe a stylistic and spiritual debt to Bruce Lee's work....but more importantly, there is a much deeper underpinning to his work. I Am Bruce Lee is undoubtedly one of the best pop-culture documentaries in current memory, focusing as much on Lee's intellectual and spiritual pursuits as it does on his movie and television work.
This is more than just a great way to pass the time - it's a very casual, yet penetrating look into a key aspect of popular culture. It's also mandatory viewing.