DVD Review - Keep the Lights On

Every year, there are various gay films that play the film festival or art-house circuit. Typically, one will rise to the top, due to overwhelming critical praise. Some might argue that How to Survive a Plague (2012), which premiered along side this one at the Sundance Film Festival, was the one that rose to the tippy top. The documentary did earn an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, but Keep the Lights On is not without its accolades. Keep the Lights On was nominated for the 2012 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It won the Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. It got nominated for a 2013 GLAAD Media Award. It also got four nominations at the 2013 Spirit Awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Male Lead, Best Director and Best Feature.

It stars Thure Lindhardt as Erik Rothman, a filmmaker in New York City who meets Paul Lucy, played by Zachary Booth. Paul is a lawyer at a book publisher who hooks up with Erik via a phone dating service in 1998. This begins a nearly ten year-long relationship between the two men. Director and co-writer Ira Sachs charts the up-and-down nature of that relationship, which reveals Erik's inability to help and at the same time let go of Paul who turns out to be a drug addict.

This relationship is semi-autobiographical to Sachs' real-life relationship to Bill Clegg, a literary agent who published a book about his drug problems called Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man in 2010. The film is limited to Erik's point of view, so the movie isn't about drug addiction per se. It's about being desperately in love with someone who has a drug addiction and how that might be an addiction in itself.

Thure Lindhardt is from Denmark and his character must be self-same because he doesn't hide his accent and he's heard speaking in his native tongue. Lindhardt appeared when he was young in the Oscar-nominated Pelle the Conqueror (1987). He also had a role in Angels & Demons (2009), but he first stood out for me in Brotherhood (2009), another gay film of which he was the star. Zachary Booth is an American actor. He's had small roles in films such as The Beaver (2011) and Dark Horse (2012), but he's a regular on the TV series Damages.

Both Lindhardt and Booth give tremendous and very natural performances. They're aided with Sachs' smooth and unobtrusive camera. There is an overall trajectory that the film has. Yet, each scene in and of itself is tremendous and very natural. Each scene flows beautifully and often times decidedly into the next but never is a single second wasted. Each moment feels vital and informative, as well as emotionally powerful. Booth is a revelation and Lindhardt can break your heart with a single look in his eyes.

There is a wealth of great supporting characters, including Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane and Sebastian La Cause, but the greatest supporting character who is never seen but heard is the late Arthur Russell. Russell was the 40-year-old, gay musician who died in 1992 from HIV. Russell was a classically-trained cellist and singer who revolutionized the dance music scene but also did folk and Indian music.

Russell left behind a lot of amazing songs. In 2008, filmmaker Matt Wolf made a documentary about Russell called Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, which really exposed a lot of people to Russell and his work, if they didn't know about him before like myself. It's interesting because Lindhardt's Erik is also making a documentary about a gay artist who the public-at-large probably knows nothing. That artist is real-life photographer Avery Willard.

In Erik's world, he's probably aware of that Arthur Russell doc, so he can't make that one, but, in a way, Erik is the stand-in for Matt Wolf in terms of what he's doing in his career. Sachs probably chose Willard as a substitute for Russell in the narrative because of the similar echoes of lost gay artists in history, recent or a generation ago. Sachs doesn't give us a lot about Willard to make us really feel or understand his importance to Erik beyond the connection of both being gay artists.

Yet, the person whose presence we do feel, despite his name never being uttered is Arthur Russell. Sachs incorporates about a dozen or so of Russell's songs onto the soundtrack. His music perfectly captures the mood and emotions of Sachs' main character Erik. The best song is the final one that Sachs uses during the last scene of the film. That song is "This is How We Walk on the Moon." The repeated lyrics from that tune that Russell sings as Erik takes a very difficult but freeing walk, ending with him crossing the street, are perfect and convey the final message so elegantly.

On a side note, Sachs opens the film with title paintings by Boris Torres, a gay artist from Ecuador. If you get the chance, check out the work of Torres on his website http://www.boristorres.com/

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for sex, nudity, drugs, profanity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.


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