Warm, engaging and much too long, It Takes A Lunatic paints a picture of the influential and innovative Wynn Handman but overstays its welcome.
Great teachers are a really special thing, aren’t they? Most of us have been lucky enough to have encountered at least one person in our lives that has made a lasting impression. Perhaps they illuminated a subject for you in a special way, maybe they made you see yourself differently or even changed the way you saw the world? Great teachers can do all these things and more; and as a result, we tend to remember them. Wynn Handman, the subject of It Takes a Lunatic, a new Netflix original documentary appears to be one of those teachers who shaped his students in that very special and transformative way whilst simultaneously pushing the frontiers of American Theatre.
Wynn Hardman is not someone I was familiar with before sitting down with It Takes a Lunatic. On balance, the documentary does a good job of introducing a man who is modest and self-effacing in manner but in his deeds came to define much of American Theatre in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. The documentary is told with clear affection for its subject and is something of a celebration of his life and work. This is both its biggest strength and weakness. There is a real warmth on display here and that brings to life the life and work of someone much less celebrated than many of his students. There is, however, a tendency towards self-indulgence that to some extent undermines the aim of the production.
The structure and narrative run in two parallel spaces; the first features plenty of talking heads (including Alec Baldwin, Sydney Pollack, Michael Douglas and many more) waxing lyrical about Handman’s particular brand of genius and an extended interview with Wynn himself telling his own life story. The documentary jumps between these two threads and at times it works better than others. When it works well, it manages to highlight how an early experience comes to shape Wynn’s style or later career and the juxtaposition of the two storylines gives you a richer and deeper understanding of the man. At other times the leaps forwards and back can be a little jarring and disrupt the momentum of the documentary.
It Takes a Lunatic provides a nice insight into the life of an innovator, teacher, and artist who has had an enormous impact on American theatre and the art scene in general. It is an engaging and warm celebration of his work. It is, however, much too long, a bit harshly edited and very self-indulgent. If you are a theatre junkie, this is can’t-miss, the rest of us, however, will probably get by without it.