Normally, biopics are reserved for those who are no longer with us, those who have come to the end of their remarkable careers, or those whose achievements have outpaced their popularity. For acclaimed author Neil Gaiman, none of the above are true. Director Patrick Meany’s documentary Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously chronicles the life and career of Gaiman during the author’s final autograph tour before retiring from the public spotlight to focus on his passion: writing.
Along the way, Meany’s movie explores Gaiman’s past through childhood pictures, retrospective looks at his achievements, and anecdotes from his closest friends; documents his present via commentary from his contemporaries and quips from Gaiman himself; and even hints at the unknowable future of the author as he recedes into relative seclusion to get back to making “good art.” For longtime fans of Gaiman – and for those of you who didn’t get to see George R.R. Martin host a recent screening of the documentary and Q&A – this is one behind-the-scenes look you’ll want to check out; you can do so over at the documentary’s Vimeo page. For the rest of you, take a look at my review to discover what makes this insightful and intimate exploration of one of our time’s greatest literary treasures worth a watch.
For the Gaiman-haters out there, if such beings exist, you might also want to check out Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously for some reasons that may surprise you. While the documentary might not impart upon you a sudden appreciation for Gaiman’s rich descriptions, otherworldly creations, or dark-yet-hopeful tone, it does highlight elements of the man himself, revealing traits which I couldn’t help but find endearing. First and foremost among these is Gaiman’s dedication to his vast and passionate fanbase. This was evident throughout his extensive signing tour, during which he signed upwards of 150,000 books for fans while ending each grueling, hours-long session with an ice-bath for his signing hand, wrist, and elbow (and the occasional tea break to restore his constitution.) One such signing even had him making special accommodations for people with mobility issues upon discovering that the facility had failed to plan ahead. So while Gaiman’s rockstar persona (and surprising formative bouts with punk rock in his youth) may rub some the wrong way due, it appeals to many more. His infamous black ensembles suggest the darkly creative force that thrives within him but belies the shyness and lack of ego when it comes to his legions of fans.
And yet, while fans of Gaiman may be familiar enough with his titles that they’re more than willing to overlook the documentary’s cursory explanation of what his stories are actually about (it focuses instead on their origin and inspiration, which makes sense considering the scope of the documentary), viewers with no prior exposure to Gaiman’s work might find themselves thrown into the deep end. At worst, Dream Dangerously might leave such folks with a curious impression of Gaiman’s oddness; at best, they’ll find that peculiar trait to be enticing, like so many of his fans, and will finish the film with a new list of books to read, it not a new perspective.
Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously is obviously for the fans of the titular author and, in that fan service, it succeeds quite well. Elements of Gaiman’s personal life, process, and craft are scattered throughout the 73-minute runtime like precious gems for up-and-coming writers who look to Gaiman as a role model, idol, and demigod. It’s clear from interviews with such fans, collaborators, and contemporaries as Bill Hader, Michael Sheen, Patton Oswalt, Wil Wheaton, Brea Grant, Grant Morrison, Lev Grossman, Sam Kieth, and the late Terry Pratchett that Gaiman has postively impacted many lives over the course of his career. And while that career is far from over, this farewell signing tour comes to a bittersweet conclusion: Gaiman’s work will continue, but his public appearances will now be rare occasions.
So perhaps it’s fitting that a movie documenting Gaiman’s life and career debuts now after all; the author will continue to create “good art” for years to come, but his public self can be considered retired (or perhaps a darker fate befell him, one more in keeping with Gaiman’s signature style and imagination). One of the most striking admissions for me, in a documentary chock full of fascinating insight into the creation of some of the author’s timeless works, was when Gaiman revealed the exact moment that he decided to become a writer in earnest. On a particularly bad and sleepless night, Gaiman reflected back on his short life, looking through a hard lens on what he had accomplished and what he had left undone. Fearfully, he worried that one day, decades down the road, he would be on his deathbed lamenting the idea that he could have been a writer, but not knowing if that, in fact, was true. Gaiman relates this tale better in his own words, which is why, of course, he’s Neil Gaiman.