Film Review: HARRY BENSON: SHOOT FIRST (USA 2016) ***

harry_benson_shoot_first_movie_posterDirectors: Justin Bare, Matthew Miele
Writers: Justin Bare, Matthew Miele
Stars: Harry Benson, Alec Baldwin, Gigi Benson

Review by Gilbert Seah

Directors Matthew Miele and Justin Bare are the co-founders of Quixotic Endeavors, a multimedia production company focusing on subjects with an iconic theme. In their new documentary, their subject is Scottish photographer Harry Benson, now 86. The documentary charts the illustrious career of the renowned photographer who initially rose to fame alongside The Beatles, having been assigned to cover their inaugural trip to the United States in 1964. With unprecedented behind the scenes access, Benson captured some of the most vibrant and intimate portraits ever taken of the most popular band in history.

The two most famous of these is the pillow fight in their hotel and the one in a gym with Muhammed Ali.

Miele and Bare’s film is quite plain in terms of narrative and research. They let the fame and photographs of Benson speak for themselves. And this is a good thing. It also helps that Benson is still alive and able to give a perspective of both his work and life as he is present from the start to end of the film. Among the interviewed are his wife (behind every successful man is a woman), his assistant and various famous icons in the publishing and fashion world.

The film also charts his background back to Scotland. There is a segment where Benson visits his old house and school. The interviewed are asked what they thought was the secret of Benson’s success. The answer is hard work. Benson would leave everything at any moment if there is an opportunity for a good photograph. He had to be at the right place at the right time. Then comes the part of creating art out of his work. Benson hated posing and wanted his subjects to be shot candidly.

The paparazzi side of Benson is also mentioned. He captured a private shot of ageing star Greta Garbo to her chagrin. Other private shots, however, he was given permission like to shoot the shaved head of Elizabeth Taylor right after her surgery.

The film is fascinating for all the celebrities Benson has shot during his career. These included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Charles De Gaulle, Michael Jackson in his private ranch and even Sir Winston Churchill.

The question arises as to which of his photographs are the best. The one on the cover of Vanity fair with Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing is one of them. The two with the Beatles are another two. There is also a great one with Bill Clinton kissing his wife. The photographs speak for themselves and illustrate Benson’s talent. Directors Miele and Bare ensures that the audience see the talent as well.

HARRY BENSON: SHOOT FIRST is a very easy-going watchable film. All one needs to do is sit back and enjoy Benson’s work, travelling through time and observing candid shots of celebrities through the years. There is as a bonus, Benson’s work in areas of war and famine that show human suffering.



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