BIFF21 REVIEW: Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 75 minutes
    Release Date: October 15th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Studio
    Director(s): Rob Christopher
    Writer(s): Rob Christopher / Barry Gifford (original stories)

You’re really writing history here.

The concept is inspired: create a documentary about Chicago, Illinois in the 1950s by way of the fictionalized autobiographical stories written over the course of forty years by Barry Gifford—thus also making it into a documentary about the acclaimed author’s early life. Much like those stories, director Rob Christopher also seeks to use his film Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago as a vehicle to put us into that time and place rather than simply talk about it. So while Gifford’s voice can be heard giving context through narration (alongside Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, and Lili Taylor reading excerpts from the “Roy”-centered tales), nothing we see leaves that era. Whether home videos, archival footage, or print materials, it becomes a time capsule imbued with personal and historical relevance.

And there’s tons of intrigue considering where Gifford came from. His Texan mother moved to Chicago as a model only to meet his “connected” father (pharmacist/prohibition breaker Adolph Stein) who was almost two decades her senior. They lived in hotels in multiple cities (and Cuba) as business and leisure overlapped with friends in high places such as new mayor Richard Daley (who may or may not owe his election to Stein’s extracurricular activities). Or maybe that’s all a bit of embellishment. Maybe that stuff is about Roy’s father and not Barry’s. Gifford is quick to lean on the word “fictional” when talking about his writing, but the line is often blurred enough to believe one might not exist at all. Chicago ultimately becomes the true lead character anyway.

Christopher puts us on the streets to gaze at the old neon signs and vintage cars. We see inside Stein’s pharmacy and the Seneca Hotel while stories of dancers going to the basement of the former and men flying through windows of the latter add color. And when the story is too good to simply let unfold with a visual collage of footage, animators come in to bring them to life. Lillie Carré‘s work on the chapter entitled “Chicago, Illinois, 1953” is a great, expressionistic black and white look at the racial divide in the city and Kevin Eskew‘s gorgeous comic book like alternating frames for “Bad Girls” and its stolen cemetery kiss might be the strongest sequence of the whole. Christopher chooses whatever best enhances the words.

He does it with the help of Jason Adasiewicz‘s jazz score too. It took a bit of getting used to for me as I thought it was drowning out the voices initially, but once it becomes a character of its own once it does really add some nice atmosphere and emotional impact. Many of these stories do have some dramatic heft after all with death and violence proving a mainstay during the earliest chapters. Gifford eventually grows older to talk about his relationship with his mother (and her revolving door of husbands) as well as girls and art itself (crediting learning about story structure to the movies that occupied much of his unsupervised youth). The only pauses come from chapter title cards—the flow otherwise lyrically smooth.

It’s only fitting then that the final shot would be a long take inside his current office of old photos, movie posters (he did write the book Wild at Heart is based on before collaborating with David Lynch on Lost Highway), and shelves of literature. Here is the culmination of what his adult life bore after the experiences that unfolded on-screen. Some of it is a product of what he learned in icy Chicago (a place where he says he always knew he wouldn’t stay), some the balmy temperatures of Florida. Either way, we get a nice overview of the former through Gifford’s eyes and imagination as well as Christopher’s research matching artifacts to words. This city and life are forever bonded no matter their union’s brevity.

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