Dick Johnson is Dead – Review

Rating: 12A
Cast: Dick Johnson, Kirsten Johnson
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Written by Kirsten Johnson and Nels Bangerter
Length: 89mins

Released by Netflix in 2020, but drawing from a long and loving relationship between Kirsten Johnson and her father, Richard, ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ proudly seeks to tackle the one area of life that is so often neglected – death. The first documentary we’ve ever reviewed on this site, the film still uses elements of fiction within the story that it tells, as the director, Kirsten herself, frequently utilises practical and special effects to create scenarios that ultimately end in her father’s untimely demise. Despite the morbid tone to the synopsis that accompanies this documentary, ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ is perhaps one of the greatest celebrations of life brought to the screen this year.

In the years prior to Dick Johnson’s 86th birthday, his daughter directed a film that seems to work not only as a documentation of her father’s life as it becomes corrupted by alzheimers, but also an attempt to visually show the uncertainty and struggles that are brought on people when someone they love is diagnosed with the illness. As the story progresses, we begin to learn to a greater extent how much the disease has affected the Johnson’s lives, and this documentary almost feels as if it’s the result of understanding that your family will not always be there for you in the same way they once were. ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ seeks to combat this issue with film itself. Being an acclaimed filmmaker, Kirsten Johnson clearly understands the power of the art form, and in her latest release, utilises the great potential that it has to mimic reality. She may not always have her father, but she will always be able to remember their time together through this film.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of films that are created in dedication to someone that was loved by others, or someone who did something great for someone else, but where ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ truly shines is in the frequent change between reality and fantasy. To fantasise about something is often considered a positive instinct, but when you begin to make your fantasy a reality, and it comes in the form of acting out the death of someone who you fear you may soon lose, the whole idea comes across as slightly insensitive and cruel. To define the documentary in this way, however, would be to completely miss the point of the whole story. ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ boasts such a bold title because it’s a celebration of life rather than a mockery of it. Dick Johnson lives as a charming and funny man, so why can’t he die in such a way? Furthermore, to look death in the face and laugh with the people you love takes the edge off of something that will one day happen to all of us, and in ‘Dick Johnson is Dead,’ both Kirsten and Dick choose to spend their time celebrating the life they have together, rather than worry about the one that they one day won’t. 

All in all, ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ focuses on some fairly heavy topics. It’s not a film that will one day have a happy ending, and for many the story will hit close to home. But these aren’t reasons to avoid watching it, and are instead things that will only allow you to greater connect with and appreciate the storytelling that is going on here. I would recommend the documentary to anyone, and I believe it provides a fresh perspective on the entire film genre.

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