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‘American Masters: Richard Linklater’ review: What you see is what you get

Richard Lnklater

Richard Lnklater Photo Credit: Black / Bernstein Productions

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THE DOCUMENTARY “American Masters: Richard Linklater – dream is destiny”

WHEN|WHERE Friday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Richard Linklater may not be the most famous or financially successful film director, but he’s certainly one of the coolest.

Independent cinema, alternative culture and Generation X as a whole wouldn’t be the same without Linklater’s three zeitgeist-defining films of the 1990s: “Slacker,” a walking tour through a city of weirdos; “Dazed and Confused,” a self-aware teen flick; and “Before Sunrise,” starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as bohemian romantics. For a certain cohort, at least, Linklater’s movies were a counterpart to Nirvana’s music: A perfect distillation of cultural anxiety, vague dissatisfaction and youthful idealism.

For the next 25 years or so, Linklater marched to his own independent beat, save for a couple of forays into Hollywood (notably “School of Rock,” the hit comedy starring Jack Black that spawned the still-popular Broadway musical). His career nearly culminated in a best picture Oscar for 2014’s “Boyhood,” a coming-of-age drama whose star, Ellar Coltrane, grew from the age of 6 to 18 on screen; the film was shot in secret over 12 years. It’s a stunning achievement, and surely the reason Linklater, relatively young at 57, is getting the “American Masters” treatment.

MY SAY Some directors have such distinctive personas that they’re almost a brand. Think Martin Scorsese’s high-strung energy, Werner Herzog’s grand pronouncements about “ecstatic truth,” David Lynch’s light-socket hairstyle. Richard Linklater doesn’t have that kind of flair. In this documentary, the native Texan comes across as friendly and easygoing, the proverbial guy you’d want to have a beer with. “Richard Linklater” presents its subject as eminently likable, but it never tells us what makes him tick.

We learn a few details about his life that, by inference, we can connect to his movies. Like his “Boyhood” hero, Linklater is a child of divorced parents. Like the characters in his 2016 comedy “Everybody Wants Some!!” Linklater played baseball in college. And like Jesse, the writer played by Ethan Hawke in “Before Sunrise” and its two sequels, Linklater wanted to be a novelist. After a heart condition ended his professional baseball dreams, Linklater spent hours reading in the Sam Houston State University library, a period of self-education he calls “my best semester ever.”

Once Linklater found his calling as a filmmaker, he pursued it with a kind of eyes-ahead, forward-march determination. Clark Walker, an assistant cameraman on “Slacker,” recalls a young Linklater, newly arrived in Austin, making one-man movies as director, actor, sound engineer (using a Sony Walkman) and cameraman. “You can’t stop somebody like that,” Walker says.

All of this is interesting, though not terribly illuminating. “Richard Linklater” is directed and produced by Karen Bernstein with Louis Black, a journalist who has known Linklater since they helped establish The Austin Film Society together in 1985, but you’d never guess that from this somewhat superficial documentary. We don’t hear about Linklater’s artistic influences or childhood idols, his deepest fears or wildest dreams. We also get little discussion about Linklater’s relationship to the 1990s and how his later films — particularly the “Sunrise” sequels in 2004 and 2013 — have become real-time touchstones for an aging generation.

In fairness, Linklater’s movies aren’t filled with subtexts and back stories. They’re mostly naturalistic, face-value stories that speak for themselves. A Linklater film, says Hawke, tends to be about something “obvious,” like hanging out with friends, meeting a girl, having a weird dream or just growing up. “But it’d be impossible to make,” Hawke says. “But Rick’s done it.”

BOTTOM LINE An informative survey of the director’s work, though short on insight and context.

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