As the Winter Olympics grip the world, countless headlines have been written about the fact that this year saw the first openly gay Winter Olympians on the podium winning medals. However, they’re far from the first LGBT athletes to take home prizes – as James Erskine’s documentary The Ice King points out, John Curry took home a gold medal for figure skating in an era when homo-sexuality was barely legal. The documentary charts how he became one of the greatest of all time in his field, and how he maintained iconic status in an era when his sexuality was still considered taboo.
The documentary utilises never before seen archive footage, going all the way back to his earliest home videos to his last choreographed performances in front of audiences (which includes the only footage that ever exists of the famous shows). Although in terms of the documentary’s narrative, this is a conventional charting of Curry’s ascent to fame, beginning with his childhood ice skating obsession, the documentary itself uses less conventional techniques in order to tell the story of his life. The talking head interviews conducted with people in John’s life, as well as experts assessing his legacy, are almost entirely relegated to being voice-overs, playing out over archive footage; a technique that is highly reminiscent of filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s documentaries Senna and Amy.
However, The Ice King differs in that it isn’t a cautionary tale about the price of fame, even as it doesn’t shy away from the depiction of John Curry’s increased disengagement from the sport he once loved. Thanks to obtaining entire archives of personal letters he sent (read via voiceover), we see that he remained loyal to his friends and family even as his role as an ambassador for the sport he loved began to take its toll. The film also manages to avoid a sense of crippling despair in its coverage of the AIDS crisis, which would lead to John’s eventual death. Without minimising the serious impact it had on society, we hear John come to terms with his death, and choosing to live his last days as positively as possible.
If you haven’t caught Olympic fever, don’t worry – James Erskine has managed to make this documentary as interesting and accessible for those who don’t care for the sport as Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna did for people who don’t care about motorsports. The timing of the release may be to capitalise on those newly won over by the sporting events over in South Korea, but at its heart, this is a human story about a man getting the chance to do the thing he loved – and still feels inspirational, even as he grows disenfranchised. It may not get the gold medal for documentary of the year, but it’s charming enough to win you over anyway.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Dogwoof