The Death and Life of Daniel D. Birkin
Directed by Vernon and Leonard Flint
20th Century Fox
Review by Brian Neil Kidd
It is difficult to produce, let alone evaluate and review a real-life drama when everyone already knows the details, or at least thinks that they do. Songwriter and author Daniel D. Birkin fakes his suicide by drowning only to resurface five years later. Brought back to the US to stand trial for insurance fraud, a spurious charge as he never collected, a virulent rumour spreads that says he killed himself in prison, or was silenced by a government conspiracy. He calls a press conference in which he debunks the rumour, insults those who spread it, and then dies on camera, victim of an overdose he took just before the cameras rolled. It’s been conspiracy fodder for a decade, now, and any attempt to film or write about it is going to run into the countless legends and sightings of the man, the slurry that washes up in the wake of an unexpected tragedy.
And to their credit, the filmmakers address some of these legends in the final third, if only to poke holes in them. They’re gentle holes, to be sure, but they leave no question as to what they think happened to ‘The Poet Laureate of The Lost People.’ They spend quite a lot of time and effort detailing the various proofs of his death, his final death, so to speak, and for that, they can at least be commended for picking a side and sticking with it. Though, the film does have a clumsy epilogue that just kind of casually mentions that there are still valid questions about the validity of the coroner’s report, or indeed, the precise identity of the ME who signed off on it. At least they didn’t dress up an actor to look like Mr Birkin and hang out at his funeral, like what many claim to have seen even though the thousands of cameras, for some reason, didn’t. Those who knew Mr Birkin wouldn’t put such a thing past him, but there is no evidence he did. (It would be just like him to show up and criticize the service, but that’s another story.)
There are so many other things that they get wrong and/ or artistically change, many of them for no good reason that this reviewer can see. For example, he neither witnessed his brother’s death nor found his body, a scene the filmmakers chose to open with. A single report on CNN suggested this as a possible motive for his first suicide, but it was debunked even before Mr Birkin was extradited to the US. He even took the time to debunk it himself. The filmmakers also ‘forget’ to mention that it was most likely a drug interaction and not an intentional overdose that killed the elder Birkin. In fact, they even let the protagonist (it is physically impossible for me to refer to him as ‘Daniel D. Birkin’) carry a note from his brother, and I won’t even mention the ‘artistic license’ they took in suggesting his brother perhaps faked his death as well. I suppose it does work dramatically, but they could have picked one of the more plausible legends to highlight.
There is also the problem of Rosalie, his girlfriend. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever, despite all of the forwarded e-mails claiming there is, that she threatened to sue him and ruin him once he was free and on the streets once again, driving him to his final suicide. I won’t even bring up the conversation that they have just before his fatal press conference. While there may only have been two people who heard that private conversation, neither one of whom had anything to do with this film, it must be understood that nothing close to what they orchestrate in this intimate dialogue was said in that room. Few things have the power to completely remove me from the theater experience, but that horribly inaccurate scene nearly did it, more even than the height of the lead actor or his features. Had it been at the beginning, I might have walked out,. As it is, I have heard personally that Rosalie is considering suing the filmmakers for how they depict her. If I had a reason to, I would myself.
Lastly, while I do think that the movie is well-performed, they missed… almost deliberately… so much of the richness of his life. No mention was made of his lifelong love affair with anagrams, cryptic crosswords, puzzles, and palindromes, even structuring his life around them. There’s nothing about how he didn’t even try to write a song until six months before he released his first groundbreaking album. How Rosalie was so overwrought by his death that she has not said a word to even her family or professional contacts, oral or written, since that fatal conference. They never mention the as-yet unpublished stories and reviews that he wrote during his exile in Arequipa, still locked away and in the custody of an unknown friend. Instead, they chose to tell his life story as something between a thriller and a bittersweet romantic comedy for the masses. Daniel D. Birkin was, and is, an immensely important figure in his time, but the filmmakers seem to spend too much of their time discussing his ‘pseudocides.’ Still, it’s worth watching for the things they get right, and if it causes one person to experience his unparalleled art through his albums and books, it will not have been a waste of time and money.