NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Geared more for die-hard fans than the uninitiated, “William S. Burroughs: a Man Within” is a largely admiring portrait of the Beat Generation writer.
Concentrating more on his eccentric personality than his literary output, director/screenwriter Yony Leyser nonetheless includes enough fascinating archival footage to make it worthy of interest.
Burroughs, born to a rich St. Louis family in 1914, is primarily known for his breakthrough novel “Naked Lunch,” which is cited here — along with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” — as one of the defining texts of its era.
His tumultuous life included the fatal shooting of his wife in Mexico while drunkenly engaging in a misbegotten game of William Tell, and the death of his only son from acute alcoholism. He became a leading figure of both the homosexual and drug countercultures despite the fact that his stubbornly iconoclastic nature prevented him from accepting their embrace.
The film uses a dizzying procession of talking heads who testify to Burroughs’ brilliance and mercurial personality, ranging from former friends and lovers (not to mention his gun dealer) to many of the cultural figures who he influenced, including rock musicians Patti Smith (“I dreamed of marrying him,” she confesses), Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra and Laurie Anderson; authors Anne Waldman and Amiri Baraka; and filmmakers David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant and John Waters.
There is also much vintage footage of the writer himself at various points in his life, most notably a lengthy, tender chat between him and Ginsberg, who at one point asks the recalcitrant Burroughs if he was ever sexually attracted to him.
Narrating the film and providing the occasional personal reminiscence is actor Peter Weller, who played a Burroughs-like character in Cronenberg’s film adaptation of “Naked Lunch.”