thu 18/07/2024

Blu-ray: Burroughs: The Movie | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Burroughs: The Movie

Blu-ray: Burroughs: The Movie

Arresting documentary about the godfather of American counterculture

William S. Burroughs holding court

Five years in the making, this is the dream documentary for every die-hard William Burroughs admirer. It was originally released in 1983 but was thought lost until the director’s nephew Aaron Brookner painstakingly restored it in 2011. Criterion has now released it in the UK for the first time on Blu-ray. 

It opens with flickering bootlegged footage of supermodel Lauren Hutton introducing "the greatest living writer in America" on Saturday Night Live, and then throws in every story and every character ever linked to Burroughs. Patti Smith says "he’s up there with the Pope, one of the greatest minds of our time". Frank Zappa smiles from the side, Francis Bacon lazes on a sofa. Allen Ginsberg tells one love story after another of beautiful young men and their magnetic attraction, while the man himself muses on how he used to be quite a woman-chaser, too. And he reads extensively from his greatest hits (The Naked Lunch, Nova Express, Junkie).

There's a surreal sequence where Burroughs performs, as "Dr. Benway", an appendectomy using a plunger (ably assisted by Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis). Dressed in his signature suit and hat, the writer strolls around his birth place in St. Louis recalling his privileged family. He remembers the hashish charms of Tangiers and muses on the time he killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in a spot of gun play in New Mexico. There were other casualties: their only son, also a novelist, died at 33 from drug and alcohol abuse.

Despite Burroughs's own lifelong dabbling in narcotics, his performance as the High Priest of Paranoid Fiction continued to the grand age of 83. If the documentary alone isn’t gripping enough (or the absence of captions on the interviews leaves one puzzled), Jim Jarmusch’s insightful narration certainly helps. A young film student at the time, Jarmusch was the original sound recordist. The Blu-ray extras include an experimental cut of the film, outtakes, and interviews. There’s also an essay by the always excellent Luc Sante. This is a wholly uncritical biography, and those who regard Burroughs as a dangerous charlatan will not find much to change their minds, but it is a treat for fans.

He muses on the time he killed his wife in a spot of gun play in New Mexico


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters