Film Review – David Lynch: The Art Life, A Portrait of a Cinematic Mastermind

Photograph courtesy of Amazon Studios In this strangely organic and homey approach to a biography documentary, David Lynch: The Art Life concentrates exclusively on the filmmaker’s early years, leading up to and concluding with the making of his first feature, Eraserhead. So if you’re looking for details on Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, Dune, Mulholland Drive, “Twin Peaks,” or any of his other works, this may not be the film for you…except it kind of is. As filmmakers Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm (who also acts as editor) go through Lynch’s childhood and teen years, we begin to uncover themes, stories (told by present-day Lynch via voiceover), and people in his life that informed his movies. One childhood tale of being in front of his house on night when a naked woman suddenly emerged from the shadows, clearly in distress, calls to mind a scene from Blue Velvet. More vaguely drawn concepts about suburbia and families living lives that appear perfect on the outside while enduring sometimes terrible secrets behind closed doors are ones that pop up in Lynch’s films quite frequently. Much of Lynch’s teens and 20s were occupied with living “The Art Life,” which he considered an almost pre-determined lifestyle focused entirely around the creation of art, in his case painting. He knew in his early years he wasn’t very good, but those around him saw a determination and eye for the work that they knew they could coax out of him. The archival photos and home movies of the Lynch family are woven in with more current images of Lynch in his late 60s (he’s currently 71) in his studio, painting, sculpting, and otherwise being creative and clearly having a ball doing so, especially when his youngest daughter is in the room with him. There is no sit-down interview with Lynch, per se. Rather, the filmmakers put Lynch in a room alone in front of a large microphone that often obscures his face and simply have him talk about his formative years. With the exception of one or two shots, we never actually see Lynch speaking, and it adds a wonderful distancing quality to the piece, as if he’s relaying stories of another man’s life that are often free of insight and are simply recounting odd or important events that shaped him. The directors leave it to the audience to make the connections between past and present, and attempt to decipher why these specific stories (including an uncanny ability to remember names) stuck in Lynch’s head for decades. Those hoping for creepy tales or overt weirdness are going to be sorely disappointed, and that’s too bad because David Lynch: The Art Life is as revealing a film about a filmmaker’s most celebrated work that never actually mentions said work as I’ve ever seen. It’s an examination into what bits of information from youth dwell in the mind and how they directly or indirectly influence one’s adult life. The level of detail that her recalls and recites turns black-and-white stories into full-color remembrances, and the doc made me admire and adore the man even more than I already did. The filmmakers do a great job keeping things simple, and let their subject be the one to muddy the artistic waters as only he can. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.