Click on the stills to see the video clips.
If you took a Michael Moore film and surgically removed the liberal agitprop (and who hasn’t dreamed of doing that?), you might wind up with something like the work of British muckraker Nick Broomfield. His films have the whiff of pure trash. Nobody makes seedier, more ignoble documentaries; nobody, maybe, makes better documentaries.
Broomfield’s recent films—Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Kurt and Courtney, and Biggie and Tupac—have targeted dead or otherwise tragic celebrities. Each begins with the same lurid premise: that the title characters are pawns in some evil game. In Heidi Fleiss, Broomfield gave the madam a pass and suggested she was set up by her alleged pimp, Ivan Nagy. In Kurt and Courtney, he investigated whether Kurt Cobain’s suicide might have actually been a hit job, courtesy of his wife, Courtney Love. In Biggie and Tupac, which has just been released on DVD, the working theory is that rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur were murdered in a plot masterminded by Suge Knight, the rap impresario, who might have used off-duty Los Angeles police officers as his assassins.
Broomfield paying Madam Alex for her services Conspiracy theories, as you might guess, do not make publicists come leaping out of their Volvos to set up interviews for their clients. So Broomfield roots around for information in other ways. He might hand a reluctant witness a wad of hundred-dollar bills. Or he might secretly tape a subject with a hidden video camera. Or he might secretly record a private telephone conversation and put it in the film. By phone from London, Broomfield explains, “The person has to be a fair target”—by which I think he means that the person has to be disinclined to cooperate with him. (See the clip to watch him money up Madam Alex, the Hollywood prostitution queen.)
Critics have mostly throttled Broomfield’s films, arguing that the evidence he offers never quite proves the underlying conspiracy theory. They’re right, of course, but they’re missing the point. Broomfield doesn’t care about making an airtight case; he’s not out for social justice, like Errol Morris in The Thin Blue Line. What Broomfield wants is to be a movie star, waddling around and making a scene.
Broomfield disses Courtney Love from the podium And what a scene. He dresses in jeans and a fanny pack, the outfit of a dweeb, and lugs around an enormous boom microphone. On camera, he plays a sort of mock-innocent, at turns asking rough questions and looking absolutely clueless. (He describes himself as a cross between Tom Wolfe and Inspector Clouseau.) He tells me he dogged Courtney Love out of vengeance—she had refused to license Nirvana’s music for Kurt and Courtney, and then pressured his financial backers to pull out. “I think the worse she behaved,” he says, “the more inclined as I was to look into the conspiracy theories because they didn’t look totally beyond the realm of possibility.” At the end of the film, when Love receives an award from the ACLU for encouraging free press (she had just starred in The People vs. Larry Flynt), Broomfield mounts the stage and denounces her, until he’s hustled off by the security guards. “This clearly wasn’t going to be my entree into the world of after-dinner speakers,” he says in a voice-over.
Broomfield didn’t always stalk celebrities. For part of his career, he made documentaries in the stilted tradition of the BBC, with strained evenhandedness and “voice of God” narration. But that, he says, was a poor method for covering celebrities. It meant he had to tiptoe around publicists, lawyers, and marketing whizzes—and, what’s worse, he could rarely share that information with his audience. He found that his best stuff—the fights over money and access; in other words, the film about the film itself—never made it into the finished product. He says, “I thought it was much more honest to be subjective in one’s opinion than pretending you have this inbuilt impartiality.”
So Broomfield began to play dirty and lay his methods bare. These days, everything is in the films—the payoffs, the hidden cameras. On the extras for the Biggie and Tupac DVD, he even goes a step further, offering failed ambush interviews and, unusualfor a documentary, an audio commentary in which he judges the quality of his own evidence. About one key source he admits, “The whole thing was about trying to make money for him.” His obsession with transparency suggests that Broomfield has put aside the idea of being a great documentarian and is instead angling for more exalted ground. He wants to be America’s most honest tabloid journalist.
El Duce casually confesses to Broomfield It’s his tabloid sensibility that leads him to some of his best finds. In Heidi Fleiss, he discovers that the Los Angeles underworld lives in fear of a gun-toting tough named Cookie, supposedly an ex-member of Israel’s Mossad. In Kurt and Courtney, a tip leads him to a punk singer named El Duce, whose music videos seem modeled on the Italian potentate’s favorite methods of torture. El Duce (who’s in his 30s but looks two decades older, at least) claims on camera that Courtney Love offered him $50,000 to “whack” Cobain—a claim that might carry more weight if he didn’t look like he was simultaneously entering and leaving a hangover. Broomfield suggests that El Duce might not be the most reliable source of information. El Duce says the same about Broomfield. In a way, they’re both right. (After the completion of the film, El Duce was killed when he wandered in front of a train.)
Suge Knight preaching to the kids Broomfield’s villain in Biggie and Tupac is Suge Knight, the chairman of Death Row Records, who was doing time at the bucolic Mule Creek State Prison in California. Death Row executives had warned Broomfield to stay clear, but he goes to the prison anyway, perhaps hoping to bump into the rap god at the concierge desk. Knight agrees to an interview but won’t talk about the murders; he prefers to deliver a sincere and heartfelt message “to the kids.” The message is that a) nobody likes a snitch; and b) when one is charged with violent crimes, it’s a good idea to hire high-dollar lawyers. (The latter strategy did not prove especially effective for Mr. Knight.)
The funny thing about Biggie and Tupac is that despite Broomfield’s obvious limitations as an investigator, he managed to assemble parts of a convincing case. Compared to last September’s front-page series in the Los Angeles Times—which advanced wild theories on testimony from anonymous gang members—the film looks downright responsible; at least Broomfield got most of his evidence on the record. He now claims that the LAPD and FBI have reopened both cases to follow up on his leads. Michael Moore should be so lucky.