An inspiration to autodidacts everywhere, Melvin Van Peebles’s careers as French novelist, filmmaker, musician, playwright, and stock trader, beg telling, and whatever shortcomings mar his bio-doc, Angio certainly doesn’t bury his lede.
Dispensing with Van Peebles’s formative years in moderately smug faux-newsreel fashion, Angio gets right to his subject’s arrival in Paris and subsequent triumphs, learning everything from French to music composition without any formal training. Especially with his major achievement, blaxploitation landmark Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, the success of Van Peebles’s self-taught, ultramotivated verve proved both groundbreaking and co-opt-able (Sweetback’s urban-indie collage looks nothing like its Hollywood copycats, which also declaw its Black Panther appeal).
But Angio’s hagiography — built out of archival clips, reverent interviews, and occasional calculated fly-on-the-wall moments — is a transparently overdetermined portrait of a quicksilver subject. Only by noting the in-house eccentric flavor of Van Peebles’s more recent projects may a viewer deduce that he no longer enjoys the varied success of his prime. The film is structured around the making of a sculpture of Van Peebles; both final products are equally uncritical.
Opens January 20 at Film Forum