Review: “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton”

Iconic artist, filmmaker, and poet, James Broughton

It is more than appropriate that the Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton made its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival considering the documentary’s subject, James Broughton can very well be considered a Godfather of independent film. More than that, he can be considered a pioneer of bizarre and expressive art that indirectly effects today’s artists.

James Broughton is one of those names that, if you know it, marks you as a connoisseur of the obscure and cool. Broughton was a gay poet, filmmaker, and a shining example of West Coast weird. He embodied the life of the California bohemian and was a influential figure during the San Francisco Renaissance. In addition to that he influenced the Beat generation, and was considered a groundbreaking voice in the sexual revolution during the ’60s and ’70s.

Co-directed by journalist Stephen Siha and documentarian Eric Slade, Big Joy follows Broughton’s life with a verydetailed eye, highlighting his lauded artistic accomplishments and weighing it evenly with his personal life which included his life as a married man, his gay love life, and his overbearing mother.

A shot of James Broughton early in his artistic career

At one point, Broughton said, “When I was 30, my greatest consolation was suicide.” He felt this way until Bay Area avant garde filmmaker, Sidney Peterson introduced him to a camera and Kodak booklet titled, “How to Make Better Movies”. The two then created their first experimental film The Potted Psalm in 1946. Broughton claimed that making film saved his life.

Influenced by fellow experimental filmmakers Maya Deren and Jean Cocteau of the surrealist sect, Broughton went on to make a name for himself as a prominent filmmaker by combining “poetic cinema language and moving images”. In 1953, his film, The Pleasure Garden was awarded at the Cannes Film Festival where Cocteau congratulated him for being “an American who made a French film in England.”

James Broughton at work

Siha and Slade explore his life as a poet and an influencer of the San Francisco Beat generation, and they cleverly give the film a narrative structure by weaving in his poetry and writings. By using his own words, it gives the audience an even more intimate connection to his life, from his first gay relationship with Kermit Sheets to his veiled marriage to Suzanna Hart to his connection with his ultimate love Joel Singer.

James Broughton and Joel Singer

Big Joy is bubbles over with the life’s work of Broughton. It marries the philosophy of the artist with relevant moments in cultural history including independent film-making, sexual revolution, the growth of counterculture, and the Beat Generation. The enlightening documentary is contained, well-paced, well-edited and serves as a informative and captivating study of a person who falls under the radar when it comes to gay icons and influential artists.


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