A few weeks ago, we premiered a little excerpt of Denis Meikle’s Johnny Depp biography. I promised a review and I’ve been terribly slow in getting through it — not through any real fault of the book, but simply because Depp isn’t one of those subjects I find particularly absorbing.
The thing is, I don’t think one can write a biography until its subject is dead or retired. We have no distance from them, and an artist is ever evolving. Trying to analyze Depp’s career right as he’s in the thick of it is just impossible.
Meikle tries, and I feel for him. He really, really wants to pin down Depp, and sprinkles his biography with snippets of poetry, traditional English sayings, screenplay excerpts, and quotes from the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, James Dean, and Jean Cocteau. He’s clearly a very smart man, well versed in literature, history and film, yet caught between writing something star-struck and hard-hitting. He veers from being too tentative on Depp (I sense there are times he really wants to call Depp’s bizarro bluff) to completely ripping him a new one when discussing From Hell or The Tourist. One might be tempted to theorize he identifies with Depp, or wants us to think he does, caught between what the world wants to read about a celebrity, and what he’d really like to write.
If you’re a diehard Depp fan, there’s probably not a lot of new information here. All of the quotes were culled from pre-existing interviews. He hasn’t sought out any of Depp’s friends or family members or, from what I can tell, ever interviewed the actor himself. There’s some astute criticism of his films, though Meikle can be rather saccharine in his praise of them. (I liked Edward Scissorhands too, but damn.)
For some of the exhaustive detail and reflection, there are some curious mistakes. One sharp-eyed reader caught one in the excerpt, which bizarrely attributed Shrek to Disney. I caught another blatant one when he claims Leonardo DiCaprio won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. There may be others I missed in sleepy reading moments, and honestly, I wasn’t going to fact check everything. But it clearly could have benefited from a little double-checking.
Honestly, until the dust has settled on Depp’s career, I’m not sure there’s any point in writing about him or reading anything beyond an interview. I can’t honestly say anyone needs this book, unless they’d like Depp’s personal and professional life laid out in a bound timeline. (“He went out with Kate Moss that long?”) It was sort of startling for me to read, as I was of the impression I’d discovered Depp “late” when I caught him in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. But no. He was struggling right up through to Pirates of the Caribbean, and the illusion that he’d enjoyed more successes or that Pirates was somehow a “comeback” is just due to fandom, fevered press, and Depp being a glum and glamorous fixture in both. Likewise, the perception that he was always “too weird” and dependent on quirky, bizarre mannerisms for his characters has plagued him from day one. Those of us who bitterly complain we “lost” him to paychecks and Tim Burton have been doing so since he left 21 Jump Street.
For hardened cinephiles, this book won’t offer the insight you might crave into Depp, his film, or his career choices. As I said, I think it’s too soon to pick at any of that. But if you have an aunt, uncle, cousin, or little sister / brother, who “really likes that guy, you know, the one who plays Jack Sparrow” it’s the perfect book for them. They’ll learn fascinating facts (“Can you believe he dated Winona Ryder?”), get a few history lessons (Meikle happily diverges into topics ranging from the 1960s to Jack the Ripper), and get a little film study in the process. At best, you might change their world and the way they view cinema. At worst, you’ll give them something cute to read on the car or plane ride home, and then they’ll inundate you with Depp facts the next time you catch up with them.