From the Beach Boys' Smile to Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon, the history of popular culture is filled with legendary projects left unrealized or unfinished by artists whose ambition finally exceeded their reach. The attempted adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel Dune by Chilean-French surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky in the mid-1970s ranks among the most wished-for items on the list of unmade masterpieces. Perhaps that's because Dune remains the world's best-selling science fiction novel, or maybe it's just that David Lynch's failed 1984 adaptation of this apparently unfilmable book only made Jodorowsky's wild ideas for his own adaptation more enticing. It's human nature to want what you can never have. Whatever the source of all that interest, director Frank Pavich's documentary Jodorowsky's Dune makes a strong case for the project as the most important and influential unmade film of all time.
Jodorowsky distinguished himself in the early 1970s with two films that came to define a new "midnight movies" aesthetic: El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Given carte blanche on his next project, Jodorowsky decided on a whim to tackle the nearly 1,000-page Dune. Caught up in the spirit of the times — and in possession of an endearing earnestness on vivid display in the documentary — Jodorowsky resolved to make a huge and experimental film that would "mimic the effects of LSD," open minds and change the world. The story told in Jodorowsky's Dune is largely one of the director traveling the globe in search of the "spiritual warriors" he would need to fulfill his vision. He enlisted Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Gloria Swanson and David Carradine to star in the film; Pink Floyd to create the soundtrack; and H.R. Giger and Moebius (Jean Giraud) to design characters and sets for the mammoth space opera. His assembled crew spent two years in a Paris hotel room imagining the film's every detail. What could possibly go wrong?
Jodorowsky's Dune captures the moment when art and commerce fully collided in Hollywood just before the dawn of the blockbuster movie era. (Jaws and Star Wars soon changed the business of movies forever by redefining Hollywood's concept of success.) The documentary is warm, funny and engaging, with a wonderful story to tell and an appealingly eccentric figure at its center. Now 85, Jodorowsky may never see his epic vision fulfilled, but he still has the 3,000-page, 30-pound book that resulted from those two years in Paris. It's filled with storyboards, concept drawings and dialogue, and Jodorowsky can use it to describe every moment of his unmade film to anyone who has several hours to spare. The documentary combines vintage material and new interviews with members of Jodorowsky's crew, but it's the director's epic personality and still-raging sense of purpose that bring the story to life.
The documentary's underlying conceit says that if Jodorowsky had only succeeded in making Dune, he might have changed the course of film history by establishing the blockbuster as something grounded more in artistic vision than box office receipts. Realistically, it's hard to imagine Hollywood ceding control to artists for any significant length of time. But as Jodorowsky's Dune makes clear, one can dream.