David Hockney at work on 'Woldgate Before Kilham'
Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

We finally have it, hauled down from the metaphor shelf and put on a movie screen. Hockney is – yes – a film about paint drying. Proverbial for the most boring experience imaginable in any artistic arena, watching paint dry – our figurative if not literal mission in this long late look at David Hockney’s legacy – proves, in Randall Wright’s documentary about the now 77-year-old British painter, to have its own bewitching appeal.

We’re really watching achievement dry, of course. What happens over long decades to the fresh, wet, wondrous lick of paint that once had everyone gasping? Half a century on, is our breath still caught by the beauty, originality and knife-sharp faux-naïveté of “A Bigger Splash”? Thirty years on, are we still agape at the wit and invention of the photo-collages? Three years on, how has the gaudy exuberance dried on Hockney’s iPad murals of Yorkshire roads and woodlands?

Answer: they all look better than ever. And, cruel to say, they look and perform better than the frame in which they are presented here. Director Wright has collected all the right witnesses, from former portrait subjects (Celia Birtwell, Don Bachardy) to friends and family to Hockney himself, who spears perceptions in his Alan-Bennett-gone-Delphic northern drawl. He, Wright, has also scooped the right memorabilia, from old TV footage to previously unseen family photos and home movies.

But Hockney, multi-funded by (inter alia) the British Film Institute and the Smithsonian Channel, still seems a little shapeless, signatureless and, with its incongruously bouncy score and full-screen colour captions quoting some of Hockney’s less pithy wisdoms, faux exuberant. The paintings steal the show. Nothing else really matters here, except once or twice the benediction of Boy David’s own disquisitions (superb on the different techniques for painting his water surfaces) and once or thrice the sight of him – eternally homeless yet eternally at home – wandering the sunny poolsides of LA or the lost but not forgotten lanes of native England.

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