Ebs Burnough’s documentary tackles Truman Capote’s complex legacy using never-before-heard archive audio to mixed results
The Capote Tapes begins with the voice of journalist George Plimpton asking Truman Capote’s acquaintances, family, and friends “to gather up their memories.” Ebs Burnough’s earnest documentary organises thrilling, never-before-heard archive audio as a means of piecing together the life of the eponymous and enigmatic writer, though in the end offers simply too much material for one film.
In its unearthing of rare footage and audiotapes, this documentary frequently falls into incomprehensiveness in the face of its own subject. While voices from every corner of the arts echo sentiments of adoration about the man from New Orleans, the most enthralling speaker ends up being present-day Kate Harrington, Capote’s “adopted daughter.” Burnough smartly centres Harrington, the least famous but most intriguing addition, in the construction of Capote’s life as the film chronologically meanders through his youth, early work, and celebrity icon status.
The real hook here lies in the film's exploration of Capote's works In Cold Blood and Answered Prayers. The latter, published posthumously, was set to be his masterpiece: a recounting of New York City’s high-society decadence. It was his immersion into the inner sanctuaries of the socialites, according to this film, where Capote lost himself in the murky waters of fame. However, the documentary’s pivot to tackle his struggle with addiction comes too late for a proper examination of this period. While informative talking heads do deliver further context about Capote at this time, the stitching together of perspectives feels insubstantial to the promise of an unprecedented portrait.
It's when the film turns to the subject of Capote’s notorious and famously exclusive 1966 Plaza Hotel “Black and White Ball” that the archive material becomes truly engaging. Burnough’s transfixing arrangement spotlights the extravagant event and it's here, at the height of Capote’s lustful fame, where The Capote Tapes takes a peek behind the curtain and finds the artist at the beginning of a downward spiral.
The documentary also contextualises Capote’s openly gay identity, sharing unfeigned accounts of his bravery and unbridled confidence. The same voices that once remarked on Capote’s greatness now turn bitter as they discuss how their secrets and lives became the subject of his stories. Here, Burnough sharpens his documentary’s focus to look beyond the glamorous outer layer of the writer’s career and review the salacious scandals of Capote’s life. It quickly becomes clear this topic deserves an entire documentary of its own.
The Capote Tapes makes a solid case for Capote's life as his most compelling work. Although the heavy reliance on audio doesn't exactly help Burnough’s documentary to find its own voice, this film still offers valuable insight into a legacy that resonates both beyond the screen and page.
The Capote Tapes is available on altitude.film and digital platforms from 29 January.Where to watch