The remarkably tragic life of American-British poet Thomas Stearns Eliot is displayed in this insightful documentary: T.S. Eliot: The Search for Happiness. Described as the central figure in modernist poetry, Eliot had an extraordinary working life, as well as personal life. Over the years, his work went through the motions; the iconic, sorrowful 1922 poem The Waste Land and his later masterpiece Four Quartets (1943). This documentary reveals the struggle behind the genius, and the journey to happiness from his turbulent relationship with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, to his loving marriage with his secretary Valerie Fletcher.
Despite the constrictions when creating a documentary with little footage, Adrian Munsey and Vance Goodwin manage to showcase Eliot’s life and work in an artistic way – using photographs and stock images to add imagery to his stories and poems. Eliot’s life story is broken up with poetry readings, voiced by Alex Hassell, overlayed with relevant or emotive images – such as religious imagery. A vast amount of black and white photographs of Eliot are used, with his first and second wife, combined with press images of him. These old photographs paint the idea of Eliot’s legacy – representing that these moments in his life are still so prevalent today despite being taken over 50 years ago. The theme of legacy is woven throughout this film, put neatly by Rachel Potter, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of East Anglia, and one of the opinions in the documentary: “He still is the poet who stands out amongst so many other poets, as having done something important and meaningful.”
The juxtaposition of the interviews with scholars, authors, and publishers, crosscut with the poetry, was welcomed and added some depth to this film. Though Eliot’s work is still so prominent in today’s society, this documentary felt like it needed some more sparkle to make it more enticing. Despite the artistic decisions, the narrative craved some dramatisation and excitement – Eliot’s life had drama and excitement, it just needed to be brought to life. Possibly documentary tropes such as re-enactment, or more past clips of Eliot, would have achieved this – however, with the restriction of making a documentary focused on figure that died in 1965, along with the lack of footage, is an understandable reason for the creative choices made in this film.
Underneath the main narrative of Eliot’s working life and complex marriages, is his relation to musical-theatre legend Andrew Llyod Webber (Phantom of the Opera), and how Webber’s incredibly famous musical Cats (1981-) is based on Eliot’s poetry. The bizarre and fanciful collection of 1939 poems Old Possums’ Book of Practical Cats inspired Webber to begin work on the renowned and award-winning Broadway musical Cats, which is presumably unknown by theatre and poetry lovers alike. The Search for Happiness discusses Eliot’s success in playwriting and his love of the theatre, and musicals – this adds a sweet, heart-warming element to the film, and is quite astonishing to see his work carried on in this way, extending that key idea of legacy even further.
Dir: Adrian Munsey and Vance Goodwin
Prd: Alex Mitchison
Featuring: Alex Hassell, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Valerie Eliot, Bill Goldstein, Dr. Lyndall Gordon, Dr. Sarah Kennedy, Jason Harding, Rachel Potter.
Music: Adrian Munsey
Country: UK and USA
Run time: 48 minutes
T. S. Elliot: The Search for Happiness is released on DVD from 24th January