As we saw earlier this year with the acclaimed documentary, “Listen to Me Marlon”, an effective storytelling tool with a documentary where the main subject is no longer among us, is interspersing known and newly discovered audio archives of the subject to give a real sense of an individual. With “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans”, we get just that and more, including interviews with McQueen’s son Chad, his ex-wife Neile, a number of race car drivers and filmmakers, plus previously undiscovered letters and writings as well as striking the mother lode with once believed to be destroyed film footage of “Le Mans”.
Focusing on the three to four months of filming “Le Mans” in the late summer and early fall 1970 in France, co-directors John McKenna and Gabriel Clarke, create an intimate portrait of a man who is at a crossroads in his life. We are not seeing “The King of Cool”. Instead, the flag is dropped and the race is on, taking us around the track and into the pits with the making of “Le Mans” and all the behind-the-scenes drama that was unfolding in the world of Steve McQueen..
With the support of the McQueen family, and direct involvement of Chad McQueen and Neile McQueen, we are privy to Steve McQueen’s hopes and dreams for “Le Mans”. Always having a well known love and skill for racing, “Le Mans” was to be his love letter to the sport. Stepping into the role of producer, McQueen had ideas for what he wanted to convey, starting with actual racing. Unfortunately, due to not having a script, ongoing problems on set including a tragic crash, a director quit and replacement not attuned to McQueen’s thinking, the film that was ultimately made was not McQueen’s vision. So disappointed with the final product, he refused to even attend the film’s premiere. Over the years, however, the film has become a favorite among the racing community and racing enthusiasts alike, not to mention cinephiles who are aware of the technological achievements and revolutionary filming style to emerge from McQueen’s efforts. (A first – an actual Porsche racing car was redesigned to accommodate three cameras hidden within the design of the car. Groundbreaking was that the camera car and all the other race cars – driven by professional drivers like Derek Bell and David Piper – drove at racing speeds in excess of 200 mph. Another first – the camera car, driven by legendary racer Jonathan Williams, raced along with the other drivers, actually placing ninth at the race end. This film also marks Williams last interview before his death in 2014.)
“Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans” never obfuscates the truth of McQueen’s life and that particular period. We hear of his rumored 12 infidelities per week. We see the tension between McQueen and Neile and we see and hear her present day interviews on their faltering marriage. We see actual letters sent to McQueen’s representatives stateside following the Sharon Tate murder when a list prepared by Charles Manson identifying intended victims is discovered and McQueen’s name is on it. We hear McQueen’s voice shaken and frustrated and you get a chill down your own spine. And we see, hear and feel his palpable frustration over the problem- fraught production of “Le Mans”. If nothing else, we see that McQueen wears his emotions on his sleeve as his world is crumbling. The cool facade is gone. This is a man at his most vulnerable.
But the one thing that never crumbles, and that is evident as being the one constant joy in McQueen’s life, is his son Chad. Home movies, behind-the-scenes footage of a father and son are poignant, touching and genuine. Particularly effective is a visit by Chad to Le Mans in 2014; his first time back to the site since the filming of “Le Mans” in 1970. His love and excitement over revisiting happy memories of his dad bring a tear to your eye as he excitedly points to specific marks along the track where something special had happened. Quite honestly, if for no other reason, seeing Chad McQueen’s love for his father to this day is worth the price of admission.
While “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans” was painstakingly fact-checked for accuracy, the one real treat the documentary holds is the missing footage from the “Le Mans” film shoot. After an exhaustive search for documentation and information for the documentary, finding 400-600 boxes of film, including off-cuts and negatives, is worth its weight in gold. All the racing footage McKenna and Clarke include in the documentary is from those found negatives with sound augmented thereafter with engine sounds authentic to each car at the appropriate speeds. From a technical standpoint, the sound design of the documentary is exhilarating.
An interesting touch is a lovely, yet haunting score, by Jim Copperthwaite. Selecting defining musical sounds for specific individuals – McQueen is identified with a flugelhorn horn – set against a softer melodic backdrop, the result is as unforgettably poignant as McQueen himself.
Directed by John McKenna & Gabriel Clarke