Andy Irons: Kissed by God
(USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Steve Jones, Todd Jones
Program: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
Catch some waves with Andy Irons: Kissed by God. This emotional roller coaster of a film breaks through sports documentary conventions and delivers a raw study of mental illness. The film mines a deep archive of Irons’ footage to chronicle the rise and tragic fall of the all-star surfer. From the moment the camera opens on his brother Bruce, a former pro surfer himself, who does everything he can to hold himself together while remembering his brother, Kissed by God asserts itself as anything but a triumphant hero tale. It’s about the pain that goes hand in hand with the glory.
Directors Steve Jones and Todd Jones chart both the parabolic highs and lows of adrenaline-pumping sports and the devastating ups and downs of bipolar disorder that shaped Irons’ tragic tale. The violent waves that Irons mastered prove a strong metaphor for his stormy mind.
Bruce Irons offers the key voice amidst a chorus of talking heads, which pepper the archival footage with memories of Andy Irons, who died suddenly in a Texas hotel room in 2010 at the age of 32. The constant voice of a brother’s love for his older sibling keeps the film grounded. Kissed by God doesn’t treat Irons as a saint and the complexity of this story does his legacy more justice in the end. The media reports, featured at the end of the documentary, shrouded his death in sordid mysteriousness. He was, in a way, written off as the Amy Winehouse of all-star surfing, a life thrown away for booze and drugs, but like the ill-fated songstress of “Rehab” fame, Irons gets the full documentary treatment to tell the story that didn’t make for easy headlines and consumable news.
Kissed by God has echoes of Amy as it chronicles the scope of Andy’s career as a surfer to give audiences the full shaker of the cocktail that killed him. Bruce speaks affectionately of the sibling rivalry he shared with his older brother as they exploded onto the surf scenes as teen., Andy skyrocketed ahead as they entered the world championship tour, winning three world titles from 2002 to 2004. The Joneses cut together an impressive reel of Irons’ early career using a seamless blend of footage from a variety of formats, all of which are drenched in the soft Hawaiian sunshine and show the energetic rush the brothers shared as they rode the waves like young gods.
The film delicately conveys the euphoria Irons might have felt at first before shifting to darker times. The footage and interviews tell of a quick tailspin into booze, drugs, and partying—inevitable temptations for a young man launched into spotlight. Add to this hazardous lifestyle the demanding pressure to win, a high-profile rivalry with surfer Kelly Slater, and the grind of celebrityhood, and one sees the cracks in the hero’s brave face edited handsomely in the collage.
Kissed by God is an effective study of mental illness and a bold deconstruction of masculinity as Irons’ loved ones expose their vulnerability and discuss openly their effort to save Andy from himself. The directors don’t shy away from images that show Irons at his worst. The lows are as important as the highs when confronting Irons’ addictions including the pain he endured living with bi-polar disorder. The film deals with Irons’ illness from all angles; it will friends and family members of people suffering from the same demons to recognize the signs and intervene. The palpable chords of grief and love from the interviewees, particularly Bruce Irons and Andy’s widow Lyndie, let the heartache of losing a loved one to this illness painfully clear.
Andy Irons: Kissed by God screens:
-Sat, May 5 at 3:15 PM at TIFF Lightbox
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.