George Takei is an easy man to like. Even in his late seventies, the Star Trek actor and activist has seen a meteoric rise in the popular consciousness. His Facebook page, filled with wry photos and LGBT-friendly articles, has amassed nearly seven and a half million followers. His face and voice is a familiar sight to anyone who has turned on a television set, either from his playful, purry exclamations of “Oh my!” in commercials or playing himself on programs like The Big Bang Theory. Meanwhile, he boldly went where few public figures had gone before: a path to become an ardent advocate for gay marriage equality. (Today, Takei is married to his longtime boyfriend, Brad.)
In the pleasant and entertaining biographical doc To Be Takei, director Jennifer M. Kroot shows a different side of celebrity. Beloved by more fans by the day, the 77-year-old looks like the most down-to-earth celebrity in Los Angeles. He seems tickled by fame, eagerly giving autographs while greeting fans at sci-fi conventions and comic book stores. Behind the sweetness and a deep, piping laugh though – one that could belong to an evil henchman in a James Bond film, if it wasn’t so genuine – is a childhood full of struggle.
As a young boy, Takei and his family were imprisoned behind the fences of an Arkansas internment camp for Japanese-Americans, a reaction to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Today, the actor speaks about these times of hunger and isolation to stunned, silent crowds. Throughout the film, Kroot cuts between these various speeches, as Takei recounts watching the search lights from the looming guard towers follow him as he ran to the latrine. The other fences he would hide behind concerned his sexual orientation. He describes to the director of his first time with a man, a blonde camp counselor, as one that was “delicious and terrifying.” He had to hold his tongue and not say much about his orientation, either, lest he be shunned from his social circles or Hollywood casting calls.
Even from a childhood defined by averse conditions, Takei knew he was going to be an actor. He loved to sing, dance and show-off as a boy. His father worried that the lack of credible, dignified roles for Asian-American actors would befall his son’s career, so Takei worked to change that. However, Mr. Sulu came many years after he would epitomize poor ethnic stereotypes in Jerry Lewis comedies. “I’m sorry I did it,” Takei says, of those early, embarrassing roles.
Surprisingly, To Be Takei does not touch on a lot of his time working on Star Trek. Kroot focuses as much on his recent feud with William Shatner as she does on his revolutionary role as Mr. Sulu, one of the first Asian figures on American television. Takei chuckles as he recounts how his steering of the Enterprise put down the stereotype of Asian drivers. He also recounts, gleefully, an episode where he got to leave the wheel, rip off his shirt and fence with a sword. (He was, in some eyes, a sex symbol.)
Kroot is likely just as awed and adoring of her subject as any pop culture aficionado would be. However, the film goes down too easily. In a year already filled with excellent docs about fascinating cultural figures – including ones about manager Shep Gordon, and the late Elaine Stritch and Roger Ebert, to name a few – To Be Takei is missing the grueling drama of those films, which encountered their subjects battling disease and diminishing returns in their careers. Takei is an anomaly, a man with youthful vigor and an increased traction among a younger generation nearly six decades into his career. To Be Takei is very entertaining, but it lacks a compelling hook.
That being said, it is enjoyable to see a man glow with energy at this time in his life, but the doc lacks much in the way of emotional heft or urgency. When the director comes around to Takei’s efforts to bring Allegiance, a musical based on his experience in an Arkansas internment camp, to the stage, the doc shies away from this artistic pursuit. Instead of showing Takei working on the script or rehearsing his songs, we see a couple of clips from the show and some talking head interviews with cast members. The musical’s staging could have been a compelling hook with which to structure the film; instead, these scenes lack drive or purpose and feel more like ads for the show than an insightful look behind the scenes.
To Be Takei also comes up a bit short when depicting the relationship between Takei and his husband, Brad. The few glimpses of them together all blend together, as Takei is always good-natured and laid-back, while Brad is cold and demanding. The latter even makes some comments showing his irritation with Kroot’s crew. (Perhaps that explains his lack of presence in the doc).
The film is not as lean or even as buoyant as its main star, and could easily have trimmed to an hour to fit the length of a television special. However, To Be Takei is filled with giddy pleasures, great stories and an effervescent subject. He gleams in the spotlight, bashful and friendly when signing autographs, excited by the notion of celebrity and making his fans happy. At one point, Takei walks with Brad in sunny Los Angeles and exclaims that it is “a lovey dovey day.” His infectious enthusiasm and charm makes a fluffy but very funny doc resonant, even through some duller patches.
To Be Takei is an absorbing and entertaining, if somewhat slight, look at one of the 21st century’s most beloved celebrities.