“It’s a DeLorean!”
With those three simple words in Back to the Future, the DMC-12 solidified itself in the mind of every ’80s kid as the coolest car ever made. With its iconic gull-wing doors and geometric stainless-steel exterior, the DeLorean is right up there with the Concorde as one of the most visually stunning vehicle fails of all-time, and its infamous creator finally has a documentary that’s as ambitious as the car itself.
Framing John DeLorean, a hybrid documentary/biopic that stars Alec Baldwin as the titular car maker,showed at the Tribeca Film Festival last week and then at the Montclair Film Festival, where I saw filmmakers Don Argott and Sheena Joyce (The Art of the Steal, Believer) spiel about it along with producer Tamir Ardon, a DeLorean obsessive and one of the many Hollywood types that have been trying to get a John DeLorean movie made for years.
“Anyone you speak to in Hollywood has an hour-long story about how they were the ones who almost got DeLorean made,” said Ardon, who has been a DeLorean owner for 22 years and has spent 15 of those years trying to get a movie made.
It’s easy to see why DeLorean would attract the interest of, say, James Toback and Brett Ratner, whose biopic never came to fruition. He was the Elon Musk of his time: a dapper, headline-grabbing visionary who took on the big carmakers to build a handsome machine that might have been too ambitious for their own good. While Musk went down after setting Tesla stock at $420, allegedly to impress his younger celebrity girlfriend with a weed joke, DeLorean’s celebrity wife left him after his trial for cocaine trafficking.
In the documentary, DeLorean’s son Zach expresses surprise that a movie hasn’t been made about his dad, since his story has “all the good shit in it: It’s got cocaine, it’s got fuckin’ hot chicks, it’s got sports cars; it’s got fuckin’ war-torn, bombed-out building overseas; it’s got fuckin’ Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, the War on Drugs; you got FBI agents, you got fuckin’ hardcore drug dealers.” Take out a few of those F-bombs and you’ve got the trailer for the movie.
Given that DeLorean is indeed synonymous with cocaine, it may come as a surprise that he was never actually convicted of trafficking; in 1984, a jury ruled that the FBI had entrapped him when, two years earlier, an undercover informant approached him about setting up a $24 million deal with a narco trafficker. DeLorean jumped at the opportunity to infuse money into his eponymous motor company, which was all but doomed by production delays, overly optimistic sales expectations, a recession, Margaret Thatcher’s decision to cut off millions of dollars in government subsidies for the DMC’s Belfast plant, and competition from the faster, cheaper Corvette.
In the documentary, Alec Baldwin, while getting his makeup done, says he once got a call from DeLorean requesting that he play him in one of the ultimately unproduced films. Baldwin is, indeed, a dead ringer for the automaker, even if he isn’t always faithful to his measured, Midwestern drawl down.
Sheena Joyce said that DeLorean’s “very flat” affect was one of the film’s biggest challenges. “He was very, very even; he never got really mad, he never got really sad, and that’s not a really dynamic person to show on film.”
If you’re wondering why exactly Baldwin is shown in the makeup chair, getting DeLorean’s jet-black eyebrows and artificial chin put on him, well, this is a different kind of documentary. The film cuts between archival footage, including FBI surveillance tapes; reenactments starring Baldwin and others; behind-the-scenes footage showing Baldwin’s process; and commentary from DeLorean experts, John’s children, and former employees at DeLorean Motor Co. and General Motors, where, in the 1960s, DeLorean pioneered the “muscle car” with the Pontiac GTO.
Joyce explained that the hybrid approach was a response to the failed DeLorean films, each of which “had a very distinct point of view and was kind of aligned with a different person who claimed to have the real story and knew John better than anyone.” The filmmakers decided to take a meta approach in order to reflect their conversations about “what is truth, and what is memory, and who has the real story, and who is the real person, and how can you claim to be the one to know the real person?”
While clever, the behind-the-scenes footage tends to put the doc into low gear. The film clocks in at 109 minutes, so it doesn’t exactly move at Flux Capacitor speed (a period-appropriate synth soundtrack does, however, help move things along). Many viewers will want hardcore DeLorean porn, and they get it mostly in the form of photos and footage of the cars rolling off the assembly line at DMC’s Belfast factory, amidst violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants. If you’re hoping to dork out on minute details of the car’s design and production, you’re better off with the BBC documentary, Car Crash: The DeLorean Story.
Instead, Framing John DeLorean focuses on interpersonal drama: namely, the clashes between DeLorean and his more conservative colleagues at GM, DeLorean’s fateful betrayal of his talented right-hand man, engineer William T. Collins, in favor of a crooked deal with Lotus founder Colin Chapman; and the complicated relationship between DeLorean and his family. (His son Zach and daughter Kathryn appear in the film; his wife, onetime top supermodel Cristina Ferrare, does not, although the filmmakers said she was supportive of it.) Home movies and reenactments portray DeLorean as a happy, adoring family man who was living his dream—dividing his time between a palacial Fifth Avenue apartment and a New Jersey farm— until he risked it all and got brought down by Reagan’s War on Drugs.
DeLorean’s children are still grappling with the repercussions of his brazenness. Zach, especially, “clearly still has some aspects that he needs to work through from the trauma that occurred,” Ardon said. Footage of his self-described “shitty little apartment” drew audible gasps from an audience consisting mostly of residents of leafy Montclair, New Jersey. Not surprising, given that Montclair is a town of sprawling homes, some of which were actually used as locations for the reenactment scenes.
At one point, Zach expresses his fear that a Hollywood adaptation would end with DeLorean’s triumphant victory in the cocaine trafficking case without acknowledging that his wife left him days later and ended up testifying against him in an embezzlement case that further ruined him (though he was acquitted there, too). DeLorean became a born-again Christian, declared bankruptcy in 1999, and moved into a small apartment in New Jersey. He died in 2005, before he could realize his dream of creating a DMC2.
The documentary doesn’t mention it, but DeLorean suffered one final insult. His former Bedminster estate was turned into a golf course by, yes, the man Alec Baldwin famously impersonates. Who could’ve imagined that a story of ’80s excess would lead to Donald Trump?