Title: Ben Lee: Catch My Disease
Director: Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Featuring: Michelle Williams, Jason Schwartzman, Zooey Deschanel, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Thurston Moore, Mike D, Ione Skye
A rangy documentary look at the Australian-born singer-songwriter of its title, “Ben Lee: Catch My Disease” charts much along the same lines as Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara’s “Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields,” another generally appreciated if not always appreciable glimpse behind the creative curtain of a curious and prodigious musical talent. The same qualities that help give director Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s film its strongest pull — the happy involvement of its quirky subject, other interesting interviewees, plus a solid sense of scope — also contribute to a polite distance and overall play-nice feeling that make the movie of reward really only for those who are already fans of Lee.
The primer for those unfamiliar with Lee’s musical canon — his early, full-frontal sonic assault with the band Noise Addict, and later pivot into more personalized and sometimes disarmingly goofy indie pop, of which 1998’s engagingly processed “Breathing Tornados” probably remains his masterwork — arrives in a fit of clips, inclusive of canted-angle music videos, various talk show appearances and loads of home videos. There’s a downright kaleidoscopic array of material here, so it takes a while for something approaching an arc — the movie winds its way through self-doubt and slowly builds to Lee’s Indian marriage ceremony to actress Ione Skye, and fatherhood both by way of his adoption of her child from a previous relationship and their shared pregnancy — to come into focus.
“Catch My Disease” mainly baits its hook by way of star power. In addition to all sorts of interspersed, informal conversational ruminations with Lee, interviewees include long-time ex-flame Claire Danes, good friends Michelle Williams, Jason Schwartzman and Winona Ryder, plus Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, and Zooey Deschanel. These celebs by and large have fairly deep and personal connections to Lee (though I believe Deschanel pops up in only one clip), so they round out the chronology of his tale fairly well even if their comments are sometimes oblique (“He appreciates simplicity — like, in the Buddy Holly sense,” says Ryder).
The Lee-Danes romance forms one spine of the movie. Danes, already a fan of Lee’s before meeting him, cops to talking to her “Romeo + Juliet” director Baz Luhrmann about including one of his songs on the movie’s soundtrack as a ploy to meet him. The pair fell in love fast and hard, though the depths of that codependency is more just given a thick nostalgic lacquering rather than meaningfully explored here. Courtin-Wilson seems allergic to pressing follow-up, as when Danes teasingly offers, “We were so enmeshed, and each other’s family, that it followed that we would have our own. But it didn’t work out that way.” The more inquisitive filmmaker, and film, would have rooted down into this young love affair with more fervor.
Lee also admits struggling with the whimsical nature of fame and popularity — an old story. But despite its subject’s jaunty charm, general candor and superior eloquence, “Catch My Disease” feels like it sidesteps hard questions. It edges to the brink and shows us the edge of some of Lee’s darkest hours, but doesn’t peer down into the abyss. Platitudes and insinuations (an indirect reference to a falling out with Mike D, who gave Lee his first Stateside break) substitute for more bracing honesty, rounded out by a bit too much esoteric filler. For fans of Lee, however, it’s still worth catching.
NOTE: “Ben Lee: Catch My Disease” is also available on iTunes and across all other major digital platforms.
Written by: Brent Simon