Sacks appeal is something the subject of this film took years to realise he possessed. In 2015, world-famous British neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, wrote On the Move: A Life, a memoir that explored his past as a gay, amphetamine-popping, self-sabatotaging screw-up. Ric Burns’ documentary covers much of the same material, with narration from Sacks himself, an impish figure galvanised by the news that he’s at death’s door. It’s one of the loveliest and most thought-provoking films of 2021.
The photos and archive footage alone are priceless. Raised in Cricklewood, Sacks morphed from an ordinary-looking urchin into a medical student as beautiful as noir heart-throb John Garfield. Beset by family woes – his beloved brother’s schizophrenia; his beloved mother’s homophobia – Sacks fled to California, where he bulked up (lifting weights, he resembles a fierce, circus-style strong man). Later, in New York, he draped himself over motorcycles, Marlon-Brando style. Next up, (entering a period that apparently involved 35 years of celibacy), he became cherubic and almost cartoonishly avuncular, the beardy guy we all recognise as the inspiration for Robin Williams’ turn in the soppy American heart-warmer, Awakenings.
Sacks’ best-selling books, especially the ones delving into autism, deafness and Tourettes, allow readers to get inside the minds of those generally viewed as “Other”. Yet this brilliant scientist never viewed himself as normal.
In the present day, we see Sacks, surrounded by his entourage, gleefully recounting a story about his burdensome body. He says that, for years, whenever he woke up with an erection, he’d get rid of it by cooling his “turgid penis in orange jello”.
The fact that one of the people listening to the story is Sacks’ long-term partner, Bill Hayes (the pair met and fell in love when Sacks was 75), provides what you might call the icing on the jello.
For most of his life, Oliver Wolf Sacks was a helpless shape shifter. Watching him come into his own is quite something.
His Own Life is on digital release from October 4