On May 16, 1984 comedian / situationist / prankster / sitcom star Andy Kaufman died of a rare form of lung cancer in Cedars-Sinai hospital, Los Angeles. Or did he? Was it an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Kaufman, a final boat-pushing prank with a punchline designed to rock the entertainment world twenty years later with his eventual re-appearance? That’s the premise of Christopher Maloney’s low-fi investigative documentary, now available on DVD via the staunchly independent Wild Eye Releasing. It’s an intriguing premise given that Kaufman built his career on being more of an avant garde performance artist than a run of the mill stand up comedian and had often spoken of his desire to fake his own death, so any seeds of doubt about his demise have firm foundations. Judging by the Kaufman related internet forums, websites and occasional online posts claiming to be from the man himself, that Maloney highlights in the film, the rumour persists to this day.
Clearly a labour of love for its young director, The Death of Andy Kaufman, with voice-over narration by Maloney, seeks to explore the various conspiracy theories as to how Kaufman could have pulled off such a complex stunt through interviews with Kaufman’s family members, friends and former colleagues. Featuring performance clips, culled from public domain sites, contemporary footage and photographic stills Maloney, whose love for Kaufman shines through, is very much a film-maker learning his craft as he goes along judging by some of the rough editing, uneven sound levels and repeated narrative points made along the way. That’s entirely forgivable in such a low budget, personal endeavor, unfortunately The Death of Andy Kaufman doesn’t offer compensation for its technical deficiencies by providing anything other than half cocked ideas and tenuous claims covering ground that even those with only a passing interest in Kaufman would be familiar with or could bring up on Wikipedia at the click of a button. Maloney’s monotone voice and faux-conspiratorial tone doesn’t help matters either as the theories are so outlandish as to not warrant a feature length documentary, something Maloney admits to during the course of the film, prompting him to refocus the closing stages of the documentary onto looking at how much we can learn about the real ‘Andy Kaufman’ through his ‘art’. The fact that Maloney could bring down the house of cards that are the theories of how Kaufman may have faked his own death with only the skimpiest of investigation necessary makes for a rather pointless exercise in the art of documentary film-making.
The Death of Andy Kaufman, which at least provides the opportunity to revisit some of Kaufman’s memorable and controversial creations ・debauched lounge singer Tony Clifton, his Inter Gender Wrestling Champion, Latka Gravas ・is a pet project that offers little for the curious viewer or hardened Kaufman devotees. The flimsiest of ‘what if’ premises can’t hold the viewers attention with such a dearth of anything resembling proof to follow it up. As much as it’s always impressive to see young directors getting it together and making a film The Death of Andy Kaufman is one for Maloney’s family and friends only, the rest of us interested in a satisfying look at a sadly departed comic should try Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’ exemplary American: The Bill Hicks Story.