Charles Bukowski, poet of the gutter, bard of booze, real-life "Barfly" and acclaimed novelist, makes a great subject for a documentary. The hard-drinking writer and longtime post office clerk loved to rant, kiss, and take another swig of beer on camera. His scarred, oddly proportioned face makes for an interesting sight, and his rise from abused outcast to underdog hero for a great story. And he's got illustrious friends and admirers, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and Bono among them.
John Dullaghan, an ad man who slipped into the role of documentary filmmaker because Bukowski inspired him, unfortunately never got to meet the writer. "Hank," as his friends called him, died in 1994. In addition to new interviews with Penn, Bono, Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, and Bukowski's widow, Dullaghan has to resort to grainy old TV interviews and material from a film by Taylor Hackford.
We learn about Bukowski's women, his drinking, his abusive father, and the courageous entrepreneur who freed Bukowski from servitude at the Post Office by guaranteeing him 100 dollars a month for the rest of his life and starting a press to publish his books. An all-too-brief section of the film is devoted to the making of the movie "Barfly," starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, which resulted in Bukowski's scathing novel "Hollywood."
The generous running time of almost two hours allows occasional recitals of Bukowski's poetry, often accompanied by the words on the screen, which seems like a useful convention for poetry-in-film. Biopics often suffer from the absence of the actual work, and it's nice to see it included in this fashion.
But the real reason "Bukowski: Born Into This" sticks in the mind is the man at its center. As stubborn, wounded, and resilient artist, Bukowski was not only vastly entertaining and bracingly human--his grumbling, cursing, and hard-working persona remains an inspiration. Admirably, "Born Into This" does him justice.