I Am Bruce Lee gives us the unseen legend
If you weren’t there at the time, it’s a little hard to grasp the scale of Bruce Lee’s fame in the wake of his premature death in 1973. The fascination continues to this day, which is why the Cineplex chain of theatres is bracing itself for a busy night on Thursday (March 8) when the new documentary I Am Bruce Lee plays for the first of two nights across the Lower Mainland (the second screening is on Saturday, March 17—details here.)
There’s been no shortage of documentaries on the man who took martial arts into the mainstream and looked ridiculously fucking cool doing it, but as Lee’s daughter Shannon and widow Linda Lee Cadwell tell the Straight during a recent chat at the Hotel Georgia, it’s not like interest is waning, and there’s always another angle to explore.
“At that time I always thought all the excitement would just kind of fade away,” Cadwell says, casting her mind back to the sensation that followed the posthumous release of Enter the Dragon. “Then after five years I thought, ‘Hm, it’s not fading away,’ so now, here were are, 39 years later.”
“What I think is interesting is that the film actually reflects a variety of opinions, so I think that’s really nice because it’s not just, ‘Let’s sit here and adore Bruce Lee,’” adds daughter Shannon, about I Am Bruce Lee. “There’s a lot of opinion about his influence on martial arts and his influence in film, and whether he really is the father of mixed martial arts, and whether he was out on the forefront of a lot of these different things. So, that’s very interesting to me, to hear the conversation happening in the film.”
Indeed, I Am Bruce Lee is no hagiography, letting participants that include Mickey Rourke, actor Ed O’Neill, and the character-drenched former Judo champ Gene LeBell duke it out over the details and extent of Lee’s achievements and impact.
Meanwhile, some of the most poetic and quasi-mystical insights in the film come from UFC world champion Jon Jones, while Kobe Bryant, dancer Jose Ruiz, and Taboo of Black Eyed Peas hold forth on the significance of Lee’s dance skills on his fighting style (“He had a little card he kept in his wallet, and it had 108 different cha-cha steps,” Cadwell recalls with a giggle. “So he really had made a science of this, in the same way that he studied his martial arts.”)
“I really did think that it would hopefully get a little bit more in-depth and get a little bit more to the core of who he was without having to have a narrator get in there and say, ‘And then Bruce moved to Hollywood where he blah blah blah,’” says Lee, who also appears in the movie along with her mother, and a handful of friends and former students.
On that note, the biographical side of the film, although doubtless familiar to the hardcore fans, is elevated here with some astounding home movies and private photographs—all of it assembled with super-dynamic élan by director Pete McCormack and Vancouver’s Network Entertainment (the team who also gave us Oscar short-listed doc Facing Ali in 2009).
For Shannon, who runs Bruce Lee Enterprises and presides over the Bruce Lee Foundation, executive producing I Am Bruce Lee was yet another way for the legend’s daughter to “continue to have a relationship with him, and to know him a little bit better.”
“And in some ways it makes guiding all of this a little bit easier,” she says, “because I just try to keep in integrity with his legacy, which I feel very strongly about.” Lee adds that she has a precious few tangible memories of her father. “They’re just glimpses,” she says. “I was four when my father passed away, so they’re fleeting moments.”
“It’s in there,” Mom adds, from across the room. “They say from zero to five are the very formative years, the memories are in there and they’ve formed us in some way, and I think Shannon was very lucky to have her dad for at least four years.”
Bruce Lee went from child actor, to delinquent street fighter, to cha-cha champion, to one of the biggest stars on earth. He was arguably the greatest practitioner of martial arts the world has ever seen, and unquestionably the most charismatic. He even put a powerful and lasting beat down on the deeply ingrained racism of Hollywood, which was maybe his biggest fight of all. To quote Lee’s god-daughter Diana Lee Inosanto, as far as the West was concerned, “He put balls on Chinese men.” By the time of his death at 32, this prodigiously driven and highly disciplined man had lived a hundred magnificent lives, and if all that wasn’t enough, he also shit-kicked Chuck Norris. Bruce Lee was a rock hard mother, but what was he like as a father?
“He was a very doting father,” says Cadwell with a sigh, “Oh, it absolutely softened him up, and I think this one, Shannon, really was the key there. Because we had Brandon, and, you know, Chinese people would like to have a son to carry on the family name, so when I was pregnant with Shannon, he’d say, ‘Maybe another boy, just to be sure.’ But then Shannon was born, and instantly she had him twisted around her little finger. He was delighted. He just loved it. He just loved it. And there was one child born to carry on, and here she is. He would be so immensely proud of what Shannon has done to promote and protect his legacy.”