If you've seen Flesh (1968) or Trash (1970) or Heat (1972), there's a good chance you'd like to spend an hour alone with Joe Dallesandro. Let's face it — that's probably not going to happen anytime soon, so you may have to settle for something a bit less private. As substitutes go, Little Joe is a nice alternative: no, you can't talk to (or touch) Dallesandro directly, but the experience is certainly intimate.
Little Joe just isn't your standard documentary. Forget the talking heads or — horror of all horrors — reenactments. This is Joe on Joe: 90 minutes of the Warhol superstar reflecting on his accidental fame and everything that came after. It's a fascinating story, even without the cinematic embellishments. Of course, it helps that Dallesandro himself does all the talking. For one thing, he's undoubtedly the best authority on his life. For another, he's not bad to look at, even pushing 60.
The film was conceived and produced by Vedra Mehagian Dallesandro, Joe's daughter, and Nicole Haeusser, who also directed. Speaking about their unusual approach, both agree that the close, conversational style gives a better sense of the subject than other films might be able to do.
"Our original goal was to make a great documentary on Joe, because many have tried," Vedra Dallesandro explains. "And we're very intimate and connected to him. That's the reason he did this for us."
But, as Haeusser elaborates, the filmmakers' decision to do the film as a one-on-one with Dallesando wasn't appealing to potential producers, who sought a more conventional documentary technique.
"When Vedra tried to get financing, they were all worried about the third act," she says. "They were worried that Joe was still alive and wanted to wait for him to die, basically. So Vedra and I were talking, and I was like, 'Well, we don't need money. We can just do it ourselves.'"
The decision turned out to be a happy accident: Little Joe's biggest strength is its almost amateur quality. Which is not to say that the film feels lacking — it's just an intentionally limited production. There are no experts over-explaining Dallesandro's overnight success (he was hot) or later substance abuse (it was readily available). Nor are there any TMZ-esque voiceovers highlighting the more illicit aspects of his career. And who needs 'em? The clips of Dallesandro strutting nude through, well, all of his early films speak for themselves.
Of course, the point of all the real talk with Dallesandro is to show that he's more than just a sex object — and the message definitely comes across. He is, as he puts it, smarter than people give him credit for.
"A lot of times you hear people talk about him like he's a piece of meat," Haeusser says. "And he's a very spiritual person."
I don't know if that's quite the impression I got, but Little Joe does flesh out Dallesandro (pun fully intended) more than frequent collaborator Paul Morrissey ever did. Dallesandro's early career was about his appearance: the muscles, the hair, the manparts. And that's all well and good, but no one wants to be defined solely by how good they look naked. This documentary is the ideal vehicle for Dallesandro to prove, as the saying goes, that he's more than just a pretty face.
Still, there's no denying Little Joe's eye candy status. To its credit, the film never shies away from that. No one appears embarrassed or regretful about the past, and why should they?
"Who he is, is who he is," Vedra Dallesandro offers. "I think it's amazing." Amazing may sound like a stretch, but consider the life of a sex symbol. It takes courage to bare it all — and it takes star quality to turn that into a career. (Louis Peitzman)