‘Val’ Tells Val Kilmer’s Story With Human Sincerity

It can be quite a powerful image to see a once venerated movie star stripped down to his most human, fragile self. We admire the faces on the screen without contemplating that despite their glorious experiences, they are as susceptible as the rest of us to life’s sudden twists. The documentary “Val” is one of the best recent works to capture this truth, while serving as an intimate autobiography. Here we have Val Kilmer, famous for his roles ranging from the romantic to the wild and brooding. An actor of breadth, he could play action roles, iconic rock stars, or ride into the sunset as an elegant outlaw. These are the memories he made sure to document on video, which he looks over now as a throat cancer survivor, speaking with a different voice.

Directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott combine footage of Kilmer as he is today and then flow back and forth into his vast archive, with a voice over narrated by son Jack Kilmer. As Kilmer states in the narration, he obtained a video camera early on at the dawn of home VHS in the ‘80s, when he was a young theater student at Julliard. Since then he became a video hound, incessantly recording every major stage of his life, in its small and grand details. Kilmer spent his childhood in Chatsworth, California, the middle child with two other siblings. Hollywood was always nearby but the Kilmer home was one of quiet and open tensions. His father, Eugene, worked for an aerospace company but had a vocation for real estate. Mother Gladys was Swedish and of more artsy stock. A haunting presence throughout the documentary is Kilmer’s older brother Wesley, who from an early age showed a natural talent for and love of filmmaking. But Wesley would die in 1977 after suffering an epileptic episode and drowning in the family jacuzzi. Kilmer would move away to New York City where he would attend Julliard’s drama school, a rigorous, prestigious institution that would include future co-stars like Kelly McGillis. After working hard to make a name for himself on the stage, Kilmer would be pulled in by Hollywood, where fame arrived with the release of the 1986 smash “Top Gun.” 

As captured in the vast trove of archived material Poo and Scott assemble, Kilmer’s life was as adventurous and romantic as his attitude. He remains a lover of poetry, and writes verses himself. But along with the dreamy-eyed artist comes a discipline for the craft. One of the great insights “Val” gives is Kilmer’s devotion to acting in the same way a painter or machinist approaches their work. Unlike other documentaries dependent on talking heads, Kilmer’s footage tells the story. He tapes himself alone, before the fame of “Top Gun,” expressing his obsession with playing Hamlet before turning 28. He wanders backstage during his first major Broadway production, “The Slab Boys” in 1983, cheerfully admitting he’s been taken down from first to third lead in the play because his cast also includes a young Kevin Bacon, and a young Sean Penn. After making his big screen debut as a rock musician in “Top Secret!,” Kilmer would then be cast in “Top Gun,” the Tony Scott air force action blockbuster that would set a tone for action films in the coming decade. The behind-the-scenes footage Kilmer saved is great fun, with shots of a cigar-chomping Scott or Anthony Edwards playing football with other cast members. He would then pursue roles with a vengeance, including making elaborate audition tapes for “Goodfellas” and “Full Metal Jacket.” His greatest test of endurance would be Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” where Kilmer would be cast in the role of iconic rock singer Jim Morrison. To get the role Kilmer taped himself reading Morrison’s poetry and singing a few Doors cuts. Rare footage shows Kilmer preparing for the shoot by performing Doors songs at actual clubs, and it is contrasted with footage of the real Morrison, to demonstrate just how much of a case of possession that role became. When Kilmer belts “Five to One” during a rehearsal, he really does nail it to a spine-tingling degree. 

Directors Poo and Scott generate a rhythm that creates a startling, powerful contrast. With every memory we then return to Kilmer as he is today, more frail and now speaking with a hollow, raspy voice due to a tracheotomy. It’s harrowing when Kilmer sits for hours at a convention signing autographs, then proceeding to feel ill and vomit into a trash can before taking a rest. His co-star is Jack, who stages some goofball moments to compliment certain sectors of the documentary. At one point they don vintage Batman and Robin costumes for the moments covering Kilmer’s turn as the caped superhero in 1995’s “Batman Forever.” Daughter Mercedes is more distant in the documentary but also appears, helping Kilmer with his daily routine with touching affection. And hovering over the narrative are Kilmer’s more painful memories. Once he became a big star Eugene was practically broke and asked Kilmer to be a co-signer on some real estate schemes that resulted in the actor having to sign massive checks to bail his father out. When Kilmer appeared in the fantasy adventure “Willow,” he fell for co-star Joanne Whalley. The two would marry and last until 1998, the relationship having been sincere but strained by the demands of Kilmer’s schedule and ambition. A recorded phone conversation finds Kilmer angry and debating visitation rights with Whalley. 

The movies can also prove to be as illusory as love. Kilmer was such a good documentarian of his own life, that other bits of footage give sobering insights into the nature of big budget filmmaking. “Batman Forever” turned out to be not so much fun. The suit itself is torture and Kilmer felt like he did more posing than acting. But future roles would prove just as daunting for other reasons. It has long been acknowledged that 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau” was one of the curiously worst films of the decade. Kilmer’s footage reveals a set rife with issues, from a bored Marlon Brando to the original director being suddenly replaced with John Frankenheimer. Film historians will appreciate footage of Kilmer’s hidden camera capturing him arguing with an irate Frankenheimer, who had earlier threatened to leave the set. In another shot Brando simply lays in a hammock, asking to be rocked. Kilmer had seemed more satisfied when playing aristocratic gunslinger Doc Holliday in the masterful western “Tombstone.” Kilmer still visits the Arizona town to sign autographs, and at night walks alone and ponders being known mostly for his past self. 

A lifelong smoker, fate would result in Kilmer being diagnosed with throat cancer just as he had found renewed success on stage with his one-man Mark Twain show, where he played the great American writer as a sassy, ironic commentator. The idea was to raise funds to then make a movie. Kilmer even sold his New Mexico ranch to fund the stage show. But like a film career, life is rarely predictable. “Val” is a work both vibrant and reflective. It celebrates the actor’s magnificent career, then cuts to him as a cancer survivor, still managing an active routine despite a scarred body. Another moment finds him weeping in front of the camera over his mother’s passing. In many ways this is a potent documentary about memory and recording the past, and what it means to have ascended great heights. Kilmer seems grateful to have lived to fight another day, and he has learned many lessons along the way. He could have easily agreed to some hagiography, instead “Val” is about how amazing moments and the ever so risky human experience go hand in hand.

Val” releases July 23 in select theaters and begins streaming Aug. 6 on Amazon Prime Video.