Bill Murray once helped a Los Angeles street vendor serve ice-cream cones to a film crew. Joe Nicchi tells the story in The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man, a documentary about the American actor’s habit of turning up unannounced at other people’s gatherings. “I know he’s just a person, but to me he was more than that,” Nicchi says as he describes the famous comedian working alongside him inside the ice-cream truck.
Nobody interviewed in this doc doubts that Murray is anything but extremely special. They reminisce, they laugh; they gush: the time Bill Murray crashed their kickball game; the time he crashed their party; the time he not only crashed their party but did the dishes, too. What they don’t do is ask themselves how they might react if some old balding guy they didn’t recognize knocked on their door and assumed he would be welcome to join in.
This year’s Hot Docs festival features a clutch of documentaries that have a lot to say about celebrity and fandom – some of it despite themselves.
With the famous name right there in the title, the one that will probably get the most attention is The Bill Murray Stories. Director Tommy Avallone goes looking for the truth behind various urban legends about Murray sightings and discovers they are all for real, as testified to by people who were present at the time: Asked for a mere photo, Murray instead sings Happy Birthday to a 94-year-old grandmother at a ballgame; dropping by a local watering hole during a music festival in Austin, Tex., Murray spontaneously agrees to bartend, pouring from whatever bottle comes to hand; crashing a party in Britain, Murray winds up in the kitchen doing the dishes.
Without much luck tracking down Murray himself, Avallone seeks out various critics, entertainment reporters and industry veterans and eventually discovers that these impromptu appearances, which bring much joy to those involved, seem to be a way for Murray to keep himself fresh by returning to his roots in improvisational comedy. What the doc doesn’t examine is the way the game turns on Murray’s celebrity: Nobody would let him get away with it if they didn’t feel that this person they have never previously met is not somehow both well known to them and extremely desirable.
Two documentaries in the festival examine the psychology behind that adulation. United We Fan is a Canadian doc about the enthusiasts who campaign to save their favourite TV shows; I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is an Australian one that follows four women of different ages as they consider their obsession with their favourite music groups. Both are highly sympathetic to their subjects, but there is something a bit sad about obsessive fandom: Who would spend a life fighting to save Cagney & Lacey when you could be saving the whales? Many of the people interviewed here, including Bjo and John Trimble, the couple who saved Star Trek when it was cancelled in 1968 after a mere two seasons, hint at tragedies or sorrows from which their campaigning is a great distraction.
Similarly, for all that I Used to Be Normal is highly respectful of the four fans it features, there is something missing from these lives devoted to bands such as the Backstreet Boys and One Direction, and some of the fans know it. In particular, Sadia, the 25-year-old Backstreet Boys fan and Ivy League grad, acknowledges she should be getting on with her own life. Is it any coincidence that she and the maniacal teenage One Direction fan, Elif, are both the children of overprotective immigrant parents struggling to define an American identity for their young selves?
Perhaps the most useful analysis of the phenomenon comes from cultural anthropologist Susan Kresnicka in United We Fan, who observes that the fandom gathered around a television show represents a form of community gathered around a narrative, a social-media equivalent of the tribe sitting by the campfire telling stories. She understands the fans, sensing their passion comes from a real need for social connection.
While the connection between fans may be real – the Trimbles enjoy themselves at a Star Trek convention – the connection with the story and its stars may be merely fantastical. Backstreet Boys fan Sadia has enough self-knowledge to recognize the whole point of those blond gods she is worshipping is that they represent young men who are safely unattainable while Take That fan Dara is a bit surprised to discover, when she finally attends a concert, that Gary Barlow actually exists in three dimensions.
For a more critical look at that relationship, viewers may need to turn to The American Meme, a documentary that looks at the flip side of the equation as it examines the reality of several fantastical figures: controversial Internet celebrities, including Paris Hilton and Brittany Furlan. I haven’t seen the film yet, but its goal is to examine where reality stops and performance begins in the lives of these figures whose fame and wealth is built on the adulation of millions of online followers.
In one clip, Hilton reveals how, in a world that has often betrayed her, she relies on her loyal fans for affection , who she refers to as the Little Hiltons. “I’m constantly traveling; 250 days a year I’m on a plane, in a different country. So it gets really lonely sometimes. I have been through so much and I don’t really trust people. … With my fans, I don’t feel like that at all. … I know they’re not judging me, they’re not trying to use me. They just genuinely love me.”
Sounds a lot more fun being Bill Murray.
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6 in Toronto