Bruce Lee’s death in 1973 at the age of 32 created an international interest in the actor, writer, director, martial artist and philosopher. A month later his first Hollywood feature film Enter the Dragon (1973) became a box office smash and the rest, as they say, is history. I Am Bruce Lee is the latest – and officially approved – documentary examining the life of martial arts’ most widely renowned stars, focussing on his life, work, philosophy and legacy. It features major interviews with many people who knew him well, including his wife Linda Lee Cadwell and daughter Shannon. It also explores his influence on those inspired by him (including a number of notable martial arts fighters and a candid interview with boxer/actor Mickey Rourke) and elements of his life previous to his famous feature film roles.
Any concerns about adulation to the point of hagiography are placed into perspective as the film explores a number of aspects of Lee’s life prior to the feature films, indeed the one of the highlights of the documentary is the way in which it approaches his career prior to his first feature, The Big Boss (1971), to a wider Western audience, concentrating on cultural, racial and personal reactions to his attitudes and his work. Vitally, it shows a number of less well-known aspects of Lee’s career – notably the early years in Hong Kong (Lee was born in San Francisco and the film notes the racist attitudes within the Hollywood film industry towards him), the gang fights, his martial arts grouping of styles and, of course, his award winning dance competitions. More notable perhaps are clips of Bruce Lee the child star, who appeared in numerous Hong Kong films before his teenage years. Indeed as much as the interviewed cast portrays a clear love of the subject, it is the contemporary footage of Lee himself, such as the officially recorded television interviews and screen tests, (fuller versions of which are supplied as extras on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases) that makes the documentary so fascinating and places his film career in a wider context.
The documentary also discusses Lee’s martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do, that he is famous for developing, as well as his philosophies connected with martial arts. For older audiences in the U.K. (and given that it is approaching 40 years since Lee’s death) some aspects of his screen fighting are particularly interesting, especially those elements concerning the use of nunchaku, which are given detailed attention in a number of film clips, juxtaposed with admissions from the contributors about the self-inflicted pain they caused themselves as they tried to emulate Lee. Nunchaku were censored from film for many years.
I Am Bruce Lee is a well structured and interesting documentary about a fascinating life. It may offer little for those already obsessed by Lee and his work (although it’s worth it for the early footage) but is nevertheless thoroughly engaging as a documentary.