With his second feature and first documentary, filmmaker Rob Christopher delivers pure delight with a film that weaves together aspects of writer Barry Gifford’s biography alongside the fiction of his autobiographical “Roy” stories. Set within the postwar Chicago of Gifford’s youth (with forays to Havana and Florida), the film is an irresistible portrait of an era and a place, set to Jason Adasiewicz’s evocative jazz score.
Gifford, who is probably best known for his Sailor and Lula series of novels, the first of which, Wild at Heart became his first collaboration with David Lynch. He would later contribute to Lynch’s 1993 miniseries Hotel Room and co-write the director’s surreal 1997 drama Lost Highway. Gifford is a prolific writer of novels, short stories, poetry, essays, plays, nonfiction, and screenplays (which in addition to his partnership with Lynch, include co-writing 2002’s City of Ghosts with Matt Dillon and collaborating on Robinson Devor’s upcoming You Can’t Win).
What Christopher has created is a kind of origin story. Gifford’s own story even before he fictionalizes it in the Roy stories is the stuff legends are made from, growing up in a rough, rowdy Chicago. He was the product of a pharmacist whose drugstore delivered far more than prescriptions, and his beautiful, much younger wife. Gifford has always admitted that the Roy stories, which cover five years in the eponymous boy’s life, are autobiographical but he maintains they are wholly fictional.
Four narrators spin the tale: Gifford, on hand to relate some of the facts of his life and his approach to fiction, and actors Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, and Wild at Heart star Willem Dafoe, reading from the Roy stories. There are two outstanding animated sequences and some personal Gifford family photos but the majority of imagery is archival, capturing the Windy City more than seven decades ago, so tactile at times that it’s possible to feel a frigid winter’s day or the wind coming off Lake Michigan.
Christopher brings not only Gifford’s fiction to life but also Chicago of that era in all its urban beauty, squalor, and corruption. Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago is a grand achievement, a clear-eyed snapshot of a writer’s work and his life at a moment in time. – Pam Grady
Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago screens at the Roxie Theater, San Francisco, 3:45 p.m., Saturday, May 7 with Barry Gifford and director Rob Christopher on hand for a Q&A. For further information on screenings, visit https://www.roysworldfilm.com/