Barbara Lippert Critiques ‘Art & Copy’

Dan Wieden came up with perhaps the most famous advertising tagline of the late 20th century, “Just do it” for Nike, after hearing serial killer Gary Gilmore’s last words before facing a firing squad in Utah. “Let’s do it,” Gilmore said, famously.

“I liked the ‘do it'” part, Wieden says, smiling.

That’s the most intriguing thing I learned from Art & Copy, the often delightful and beautifully shot documentary commissioned by The One Club and opening in theaters on Aug. 21.

Directed by Doug Pray and taken from “an original concept by Gregory Beauchamp and Kirk Souder,” the 86-minute film is chockablock with remarkable on-camera interviews with ad luminaries, many of them members of The One Club Hall of Fame.

It’s particularly moving to see Hal Riney, who died not long after he was interviewed, sounding robust as he speaks in his trademark soothing cadences, opening up about his father “going to the pokey for writing bad checks.” As a result, he admits that perhaps, “I let advertising be the avenue to express some of the things that I didn’t experience in my life.”

Wow. Think about that! If Riney’s father had been a more upstanding citizen, perhaps “Morning Again in America” never would have been made, and Ronald Reagan would have been a one-term president!

Actually, advertising greats and their daddy issues could have been a whole separate documentary, given how many times the interviewees mention the need to prove something to their fathers.

Lee Clow — who offers some fascinating, little-known factoids about the making (and almost pre-Super Bowl suppression) of Apple’s “1984” — talks honestly about the need to prove his worth to his dad and/or Jay Chiat.

But that’s my quibble with this film — it’s elicited some amazing sound bites from ad greats, but doesn’t provide any editorial context or interpretation. Like the ad industry itself, the documentary suffers from an infrastructure problem.

Perhaps that’s the underside of being commissioned by The One Club — there’s no attempt to follow up. Rather, it’s more like a survey course that keeps moving around, both in time and geography. In fairness, this allows the film to cover a lot of ground (and in doing so, offers the most complete history of West Coast advertising yet.) So it’s busting with great stuff. But as a journalist, my natural instinct would be to take this gripping material, some of it revealed for the first time from rarely seen but enormously respected sources like Jim Durfee and Cliff Freeman, and set up arguments and counterarguments and draw conclusions.

Instead of building a narrative, the filmmakers chose to hang the talking-head interviews and footage of classic commercials on some weird visual scaffolding. We get a profile of a third-generation guy who puts up billboards and an interview with some French dude about satellites. These allow for some arty cinematic interludes, but don’t advance the main story. (Here again, it might have been interesting to see the billboard ad from initial idea through production.)

But among the seldom-interviewed folks, we get time with Phyllis K. Robinson, an original DDBer, who held the antique but important title of “copy chief.” It’s a delight to see her — she radiates intelligence and grace, and hardly looks different today from the old photo to which she points and says, “That’s me, in the year I smoked.” In recalling the formation of the agency, where Bill Bernbach revolutionized the business by putting copywriters and art directors together, rather than having art come as an illustrative afterthought to the text, she says modestly: “We had no sense of how big and important a move this was.”

That’s in sharp contrast to the always-amusing George Lois, who gets a lot of face time, because with every impassioned word he utters, he jumps off the screen.
 
Mary Wells is here too, and reveals that her parents pushed her into the theater. Her knack for knowing “what turns people on” and her theatrical sense led her into advertising. “I’ve had a big life,” she says. “I have the energy. I don’t get tired, maybe because I’m not afraid. I think fear is a powerful depressant.”

What’s interesting for insiders is to see how stars of the contemporary ad scene appear far less excited than the old timers. “It’s a business of rejection,” Jeff Goodby says. “Things get killed all the time. . . . The process can take a year, and it’s very stressful and depressing to have those ideas killed. So there has to be a nurturing environment, so that people can get themselves up off the floor and do it again.” 
 
In the end, I actually learned a lot. Art & Copy provides the definitive inside stories on campaigns ranging from “Think small” to “Got milk?”

Think of it more as a smart survey course of the last 50 years of advertising, and as such should be screened by media students everywhere.