Keeping pace with the ultra-active George Takei, even at age 75, is a feat few of us are ever likely to achieve. That’s the primary lesson I learned after the SIFF screening of To Be Takei, the breezy new documentary from Jennifer Kroot about the life of legendary Star Trek actor, activist, and, most recently and unexpectedly, Facebook titan, George Takei.
The film covers elements of Takei’s life which will be immediately familiar to fans who follow his Facebook page (with over seven million fans!), or who have ever been to a Star Trek convention. Kroot frames the broader picture of Takei’s life and career with the terrible story of his family’s forced relocation by the US Government, along with over 110,000 other Japanese-American citizens, to harsh internment camps during World War II. As presented in the film, Takei’s internment experience was as deeply formative as you’d expect for a man now famed for outspoken activism. Other notes in Takei’s life which fans would expect are hit in due course, including reflections on his most famous role as Sulu in Star Trek, and his contentious relationship with William Shatner.
More unexpected is the perspective on Takei’s long history of social and political activism. Takei is now justly famed for his LGBT rights activism since publicly coming out in 2005, but who knew he was a power player in Los Angeles mass-transit in the 70’s and 80’s? Opting to show as much of the breadth of Takei’s day-to-day life and influence as possible in a briskly paced 90 minutes, the camera follows him through a whirlwind stream of speaking engagements, awards banquets, autograph signings, pride parades, guest appearances on countless TV shows, announcing gigs for Howard Stern, and rehearsals for an original musical, Allegiance, based on his internment experience.
It’s no wonder, then, that much of the doc’s running time is also focused on the strength of his relationship with husband Brad Takei, who remains a fussy, hilarious presence throughout (the audience at my screening absolutely ate him up), and even receives an “introducing” credit in the film’s opening ala a newly minted child-star.
Watch as Brad nags George while scooting from appointment to appointment, stresses out over George’s packed schedule, shamelessly stuffs gobs of cash from autograph fees into a hopelessly nerdy fanny pack, and does all the unsexy work required for George to do what he does best at every opportunity: enlighten, entertain, and soak up the spotlight. The quieter time spent with the two, like the grimly funny botched scattering of Brad’s deceased mother’s ashes over a windy Arizona cliff, also easily forms the film’s most affecting moments. Watching them together makes it clear that being Takei wouldn’t even be possible for George without Brad’s devoted assistance.
For as entertaining as To Be Takei is, there are some missed opportunities. Too much time is spent on the childish public spats between Takei and William Shatner, during which little is illuminated other than Shatner’s already legendary obliviousness to the feelings of his former cast-mates. There would also seem to be greater emotional riches to be mined out of Takei’s story as a semi-closeted gay man trying to build a successful career in a Hollywood whilst avoiding the sci-fi type-casting that befell so many of his peers, but the film is content to simply let us know that Takei endured those times, and that they were difficult for both him and Brad. And it would have been fun to spend more time with Takei’s rise on the internet through his astoundingly popular Facebook page – an amazing accomplishment for anyone, much less a septuagenarian who, not long ago, was considered to be in the twilight years of his pop-culture career.
Ultimately, the phrase “to be Takei” applies just as much to the film as its subject, which feels as much as logical extension of a very popular brand as it does a documentary. But, when the brand is as joyful and entertaining as George Takei, it’s hard to complain too much. Just like his famous Facebook feed, To Be Takei offers humor, heart, and enough food for thought to make easy work of welcoming more Takei – George and Brad – into your life.
Can’t get to a regular screening? Check out this DP/30 interview with George and Brad here: