Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

dick johnson is dead poster 2020 movie review
8.0 Overall Score

Different type of documentary, personal

Personal aspect doesn't always make it easy to connect and is sometimes uncomfortable

Movie Info

Movie Name: Dick Johnson Is Dead

Studio: Big Mouth Productions

Genre(s): Documentary

Release Date(s):  January 25, 2020 (Sundance)/October 2, 2020 (US)

MPAA Rating: PG-13

dick johnson is dead heaven scene dance

If this is Heaven, it might be a hard pass…It looks a bit too chaotic and busy…can’t you just sit and watch The Simpsons?

Dick Johnson is dead…or at least he will be.  He could crushed by a falling object, fall down the stairs, or be struck by construction equipment.  Kirsten Johnson and her father Dick learn that he is succumbing to dementia much like his wife death’s with Alzheimer’s, and they decide not to let it go to waste.  Dick knows he’s dying and would like to go out with a bang.  With his daughter’s film experience guiding him, Dick is going to see what it is like to die on screen and host his own funeral.  Dick Johnson could die at any time…but so can anyone.

Directed by Kirsten Johnson, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a documentary.  The film premiered at Sundance where it won the award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling and premiered on Netflix on October 2, 2020.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #1111).

dick johnson is dead fake death

Faking a death where you wife had a fall that ended up being the point of her health downfall…tacky or dark humor?

I saw and enjoyed Kirsten Johnson’s documentary film Cameraperson.  It was about the life of a cameraperson, the choices they make as filmmakers, and then begins to dive in to Kirsten’s life and how her job affected it.  In the movie, we see Kirsten’s mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, and Kirsten capturing personal and sad moments.  Dick Johnson Is Dead is the flipside of those parts of Cameraperson.  It is personal and intimate, but it also takes a different look at a disease that robs people of their memories and families.

Instead of being a standard examination of the process of the decline of her father, both Dick and Kirsten decide to explore death before it is too late.  The ending of a person’s life is obvious, but the path to that ending can have different directions.  Through exploring different “deaths” (all non-sensational), Kirsten is able to come to terms with the loss of a second parent and spend a lot of time with her father.

While the movie does have humor, it is rather bleak humor.  Having experienced a person battling dementia, you can see it in Dick’s eyes.  He jokes but jokes often are a means of stalling for a few seconds until he can hopefully find the answer he’s lost.  Kirsten laments never filming her mother when she was cognitive, and here, she at least gets to see some of her father (albeit rather raw and sometimes painful) as he is…and he is scared at points.

dick johnson is dead funeral family

Getting to say goodbye before it is too late for everyone

The movie in some ways (as an outsider) feels somewhat exploitive although you can also tell it isn’t.  This is a bit uncomfortable as a viewer.  You can tell Dick Johnson has a sense of humor, and Kirsten has a similar sense of humor.  It isn’t the standard humor but a bit twisted and wry…that is why agreeing to shoot multiple deaths is something that feels like they both would do.  Where it starts to become tougher is that Dick starts to “forget” the joke.  It is a bit confusing and upsetting to him.  He doesn’t understand the workman death and his friends also struggle during his fake funeral…which they’ll have to experience again when he dies in reality.  It isn’t exploitive, but it can feel like it.

Dick Johnson Is Dead is a different look at life and death and everything in between.  Life is fragile and a guy walking down the street could be dead in a car accident in minutes while someone else might live to one hundred and ten and die in their sleep.  The movie emphasizes the zest of life even in the sadness, and Kristen is able to give her father things he never thought he’d get through the miracle of film.  Death is inevitable, but Dick Johnson will live on.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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