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Why a Hollywood hotshot would chose to mingle with his audience, sometimes for hours, is the question documentarian Tommy Avallone tries to answer in this rather fine film. We see the famous grainy footage: Bill tending bar, Bill washing dishes at a party, Bill treating a stranger to World Series tickets, and we meet the giddy recipients of these pop-up moments.
As theories are bandied about, it becomes clear that there is something transcendently magical about these experiences, for everyone involved. Less about giving, and more about sharing, Murray's connections are real, unscripted, joyous.
Tommy spends the whole of the movie tracking down the elusive movie star, culminating in an encounter which plays true to the spirit that Murray has cultivated.
Quite a lot of fun.
If you love Bill Murray, you'll love this movie. If you don't, after watching this movie, you'll love Bill Murry... then, after you've watched the movie a second time, you'll love this movie.
It's a classic urban myth; it plays on fear and prejudice; it's always 'a friend' or a friend of a friend' to whom it happened; the actual people involved are always just one remove away. These myths spread like wildfire across cities - even before the internet and social media were in wide use - and become accepted truths. Of course, these days one can find few people who actually believed this myth; but back in the day when most of us heard it most of us believed it, at least for a few minutes. For some of us, such stories become a prism through which we view an issue; the more light-hearted ones become shared jokes which bind groups together. In many cases the truthfulness of these myths isn't what's most important; it's what they mean at a deeper level that matters, the way they shape us and define our views of people or things. Urban myths are in that respect a close relative of what we now call fake news.
Bill Murray is an actor around whom a series of what appear to be urban myths have grown up, and this documentary is the story of a film-maker trying to get to the bottom of them, establish their truthfulness and meaning. It turns out that the myths around Bill Murray are mostly true - he really did turn up to a student party and do the washing up; he did join the engagement photo-shoot of a random couple; he did play kickball with some people in a park that one time; he did turn up at a bar and start serving drinks behind it.
On they go. The documentary is intoxicatingly cheerful; it's the good-natured story of a global star, blessed with magical comic timing, who has appeared in some of our best-loved movies, doing nice things for ordinary people. What does it all mean, the film-maker wants to know?
I remember Bono once being quoted as saying 'I see fame as a calling'. It's one of those Bono-isms that winds a lot of people up: I understand that, but I couldn't help thinking of those words when I was watching this film. It seems that Bill Murray sees fame in a similar way; if one has this ridiculous thing called celebrity, one might as well do something useful with it, the logic goes. Bono takes that in one direction; Bill Murray in another. The roots of this seem to be in his improvisational comedy background; as the film explains, in improv the artist has to say 'yes, and ... ' then move further down the road. Fear must drive you to new things in improv, not weigh one down the way it does so many of us. He has no entourage to bring with him, no PR people to spin. He's just himself, improvising outside the performance space.
What's interesting is what this all means to the people Murray meets. One of his directors says 'he shows up not to take over, but to be present'. One person who testified to one myth's truthfulness first-hand said 'He made feel like a bigger person than I am ... I'm not part of his story, he's part of my story.' Another says 'By action, if not by word, he's teaching us how to live.' It's an invitation not to live on autopilot, but rather to live wherever the wind blows.
For the follower of Jesus, this all sounds a little like Jesus speaking of how the Holy Spirit, the essence of God, guides us and works. It sounds a lot like an invitation to embrace the opportunity to see transcendence and holiness and opportunity in the ordinary stuff of the day to day, for ourselves and for those standing in queues with us, at the next table, in the car beside us. What if we Jesus followers saw those moments as chances to bring transcendence to others and ourselves in those ordinary moments; what if we did so in such a way so as to not draw attention to ourselves with a lecture or sermon or the like? But something more simple - quietly paying for someone else's coffee, for example.
I don't know how all this works. Bill Murray is no Jesus - a quick read around online relates that many have found him hard to work with and that one ex-wife mentioned abuse and addiction as a cause for her seeking divorce (though these claims were later withdrawn). In these true myths, is Murray somehow seeking atonement for all that too? We can but guess. But it all seems to be the sort of gentle, grace-giving, enlightening thing Jesus to which Jesus might call us.
The stories are legendary, but many are true: Murray crashing a couple's engagement photo; joining a kickball game in a public park; DJ'ing at a birthday gathering; or serving as a roadie and tambourine player for a band at a house party.
CNN writer David Allen posits that, in an era when people are glued to their phones or sleepwalking through life, Murray wants to wake them up - remind them to live in the moment and be mindful of what's around them.
"You know, I'm not always aware that I'm thinking of what I want them to take away from it," Murray told Rolling Stone. "My hope is that it's going to wake me up. If I see someone who's out cold on their feet, I'm going to try to wake them up. Cause it's the same thing; it's what I'd want someone to do for me. Just wake me up."
The film attributes this to Murray's background in improv comedy, which forces participants to be acutely aware of the moment and react creatively.
"Bill can take these small moments and transfer them into something memorable," says Avallone. "He seems to just have this chameleon-type quality when it comes to social situations. He comes into peoples lives, gets a feel for the room and then makes the moment something special."
The photographer who took the engagement photo, Raheel Gauba of Charleston, S.C., agrees.
"It wasn't really a photo bomb, where he just randomly popped up in a photo. ... Bill showing up in the most unexpected of places, giving a piece of himself, giving a little memory to someone -'memory bombing' would be a more appropriate term."
Tyler Van Aiken owns an Austin, Texas, bar where Murray visited, befriended an employee and ended up tending bar. He thinks the actor simply has come to terms with his unique level of fame.
"How crazy would it be if you walked around town and everyone loved you? ... That would be exhausting," Van Aiken says. "But he seems to have turned it on its head and just gone with it - and realized that he has the power to make other people have an amazing experience."
CNN's Allen spots a deeper theme that recurs in Murray's films: "It just doesn't matter."
"Things are always up and down. Good things can lead to bad things; bad things can lead to good things. If you have this 'It just doesn't matter,' if you have this more Zen, if you will, outlook on it, and can look at the big picture of it, your whole life is going to be more even keel."
Ultimately, filmmaker Avallone concludes that people don't cherish their encounters with Murray because they met a celebrity. "It's because they had a real interaction with a real person," he says.
Director Peter Farrelly, who worked with Murray on Kingpin, puts it this way: "Part of Bill's charm when he shows up is not to take over. Like, when he shows up to someone's house and does this kind of thing, he wants to be in the house and part of the gang. That's the joke. He's not tap dancing or juggling, he's sitting there watching TV with them. And yet it's Bill Murray. And that's part of it. It's not showing up to entertain; it's showing up to be present."
Stu Robinson practices writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.