Occupying the happy space between genuine interest in the creative process and celebrity-worship, Michael Almereyda's documentary on the rehearsals for a 2000 Sam Shepard play is a fascinating film. This is fitting, since Shepard himself is a curious character, both an award-winning playwright and ruggedly handsome movie star. To peek behind the curtain while he directs Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin is a treat.
The play, "The Late Henry Moss," is yet another of Shepard's hard-boiled, tough-talking, testosterone-filled odysseys into the male psyche. In biographical flashbacks and loose interviews, we find out just how close to Shepard's own life his most important plays are, and "The Late Henry Moss" is no exception. Shepard regular James Gammon plays the drunk (and dead) father to Penn and Nolte's bellicose brothers.
Mostly set in the dimly-lit auditorium of San Francisco's Magic Theater, the film offers an intimate view of professionals at work. Shepard gives directions and watches with intense attention while the actors stumble, fumble, and slowly grow comfortable with their characters. The actors' openness at revealing themselves at this vulnerable stage is truly admirable--reason enough to recommend the film to anybody with an interest in the theater.
What makes "This So-Called Disaster" one of the most pleasurable documentaries in recent memory is the fact that everybody is also famous: to see Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson razz each other about their bad films, to hear Nolte talk freely about his nervous breakdowns, and to witness them all suffer from stage fright on opening night allows for star-gazing that, just this once, doesn't feel frivolous. These celebrities, far from being vapid, also reveal themselves as consummate craftsmen with a genuine commitment to their art.