Director Gabriel Clarke, John McKenna
Starring, as themselves, Steve McQueen, Niele Adams, Chad McQueen, Louise Edlind, Derek Bell, David Piper.
Released 5th June 2017
It’s a DVD cover that says it all in the title and the picture of the man himself. The story behind Steve McQueen’s attempt to make a movie about motor racing is a documentary that’s partly about him and partly about the sport. And it comes complete with McQueen’s trademark defiance, as demonstrated in the photograph.
In his own words, McQueen was “not a compromiser.” By the time his passion project – a film based on Le Mans and its 24 hour race – was taking shape, he was already Hollywood’s number one star. Movies like The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt had capitalised on his early successes and he could do no wrong. That, combined with his newly formed production company, meant that nobody was likely to say no to this new project, one that he envisaged would define his career but which turned out to be something entirely different.
McQueen: The Man and Le Mans is split in the same way as the title, partly focusing on the man himself and partly on the world famous 24 hour race. The portrait of McQueen concentrates on the period when the film was being made, one that turned out to be an especially turbulent one. Making the movie brought pressures of its own, but off the set his appetite for drink and women fractured his marriage: he always had company in his trailer, as one of the many talking heads remembers, with a very knowing look. The aftermath of the Sharon Tate murders brought the unsettling revelation that he was on Charles Manson’s hit list.
At the same time, his movie was spiraling out of control. McQueen had brought in director John Sturges – the two had worked together on The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven – but the actor’s insistence of being more of a director himself caused tension. There was no script, so the crew was filming acres of footage and, generally, “winging it”. And John Frankenheimer had been first out of the blocks with a major film on motor racing with Grand Prix. It starred James Garner who, coincidentally, lived in the apartment beneath McQueen’s. As the documentary tells it, every night he would go out on the balcony and relieve himself on Garner’s plants down below.
After a change in producers and director, McQueen reduced to just acting and the arrival of a script, the film was eventually completed and released to mixed reviews. McQueen didn’t attend the premiere. Years later, it’s beloved, if not revered, by car fans, with the professional drivers involved in its making rating it as something special. And there’s no escaping that the doc is an unapologetic justification for the star’s pet project.
The documentary may not be special, but it’s certainly more than watchable, welding the two sides of its story together almost seamlessly. There are plenty of talking heads with their own memories and experiences, from McQueen’s first wife, Neile Adams, and son Chad, to drivers Derek Bell and David Piper. They cut solitary figures, sat at a small table against a dark grey background, but nothing distracts you from what they have to say. And they are full of telling moments, perhaps the most touching involving Piper, who lost part of his leg in a crash during filming. For the first time, he’s shown a letter from McQueen recommending that the proceeds from the premiere should go to help him and his family. He’s visibly moved.
There’s plenty of archive footage, demonstrating the then ground breaking car mounted cameras advocated by McQueen, to recently discovered audio interviews with the actor. It all adds up to a documentary with two distinct audiences, racing fans and movie fans. Neither will be unhappy with it – and they’ll both learn something about each other’s favourite subject.
McQueen: The Man and Le Mans is out now on DVD.