Before Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh grew to national prominence, there was a loudmouthed would-be populist firebrand named Morton Downey Jr., who had a nationally syndicated talk show that lasted less than two years. The chain-smoking, motormouthed host railed against the world, and was cheered on by an intense, loyal, and vocal live audience that could best be described as a combination of professional-wrestling enthusiasts and proto-Jerry Springer fans. Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger, recalls his meteoric rise and fall, even if it never finds a way to make his story relevant.
Born to wealthy parents who made their living in show business, Downey seemed to desire fame his entire life, and as this movie makes clear, he understood that controversy was a quick and easy way to get your name on the front page. The film argues that much of what drove him was a yearning to show his parents what he was capable of, but the documentary’s pop-psychology passages -- as well as its footage of the most memorable moments from his raucous television show -- aren’t particularly insightful, even when they’re enjoyable.
What does get to the heart of the matter is a telling sequence in which we’re introduced to some Jersey guys who all seem to be regular Joes with steady jobs and families. As teenagers, this group regularly travelled to attend tapings of Downey’s show, often appearing onscreen during moments when audience members were encouraged to ask questions. We see clips of these men saying the most outrageous things as teens, and often getting positive reinforcement for doing so from their seemingly unhinged idol. As adults, these guys look back at their younger selves with a fascinating combination of nostalgia mixed with bewilderment that the show ever meant that much to them.
That section of the movie lasts just a few minutes, but it’s the most instructive element of Evocateur because it’s the only time we see the effect this polarizing personality had on regular people. While there’s tabloidy fun to be had reliving his very public fall -- from the infamous alleged attack he suffered in a public bathroom to his speaking out against smoking after spending his entire public life with a burning butt in his mouth -- the directors don’t make the case that Downey was anything other than a blip on the pop-culture radar. An early montage shows others who had similar acts in the decades before, proving that he was just one in a series of broadcasters who used this abrasive schtick to gain some notoriety.
Evocateur certainly works as nostalgia. If, like the guys who used to go to his show regularly, you remember being stunned, entertained, shocked, and/or infuriated by Downey’s antics, the movie is a first-rate look back at that brief moment in pop-culture history. However, the film never explains why we should bother remembering him. leave a comment --Perry Seibert