Skip to content

James Ellroy: A Life in Documentary

December 1, 2020

Few living writers have inspired as many documentaries as James Ellroy. For fans and researchers of the Demon Dog of Crime Fiction these films are invaluable source, offering both a good summation of his life and work, as well as morsels of information that you won’t find elsewhere. In the following post I’m going to provide an overview of the Ellroy documentaries. I won’t include segments and TV specials as they are so numerous it would be an exhausting exercise. Instead I will focus on the definitive documentaries and, while I have my preferences, I heartily recommend them all.

James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction (1993)

It’s rather appropriate that all of the great Ellroy documentaries have been European productions, given that Ellroy’s popularity and critical reputation has always been slightly higher in France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, for example, than it has been in his home country. This excellent documentary was made by the Austrian filmmakers Reinhard Judd and Wolfgang Lehner. Shot in the early 1990s, the film follows Ellroy while on a book tour for White Jazz. It captures LA’s film noir heritage and its sleazy contemporary identity. There’s also some great footage of Ellroy in his Eastchester office with his beloved Barko. Some sources state this film was released in 1998. That was a re-release. The film premiered at film festivals in 1993. Therefore, it is the first full-length Ellroy documentary.

White Jazz (1995)

Nicola Black’s compelling portrait of Ellroy was filmed while the author was investigating his mother’s murder with retired detective Bill Stoner. It features re-enactments by Ellroy and Stoner of the first time Ellroy read his mother’s homicide file. There is also a scene in which actors portray Ellroy’s mother and the Swarthy Man. It imagines Jean’s final moments and, while the scene could have easily backfired, it is handled sensitively and well. This British documentary is Ellroy’s favourite of the films made about him. The only drawback is it’s difficult to find a copy, but well worth the effort in tracking down.

James Ellroy’s Feast of Death (2001)

Vikram Jayanti made possibly the most ambitious film about Ellroy. There are scenes with Ellroy in his home in Mission Hills, talking to cousins in Wisconsin, discussing the Kennedy assassination with Rick Jackson at Dealey Plaza, and of course there is plenty of footage of Ellroy in LA. There are long scenes with Ellroy dining with LAPD and LASD detectives at the Pacific Dining Car. True Crime buffs should especially enjoy the restaurant scene where Larry Harnisch describes his research on the Black Dahlia case to a roomful of sceptical detectives.

James Ellroy: American Dog (2005)

The father and daughter filmmaking team of Robert and Clara Kuperberg captured Ellroy living back in LA in the mid-Noughties. It was the height of Ellroy’s career as a Hollywood screenwriter and, as you might expect from a French production, this documentary has an effortlessly beautiful film noir tone. There are revealing scenes of Ellroy lunching at the Pacific Dining Car with his Hollywood friends. The DVD special features includes more scenes of these legendary feasts at Ellroy’s favourite restaurant which has recently folded. Another business which has sadly fallen prey to the pandemic.

The four films listed above are, to me, the seminal works on Ellroy. But there are certainly other films that warrant discussion, such as the episode of Unsolved Mysteries which examines Jean Ellroy’s murder. Over to you dear readers. Which of these documentaries is your favourite, or is there other footage out there of Ellroy that is particularly important to you?

James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester 2014

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    December 2, 2020 11:06 pm

    Feast of Death is the only one of the above I’ve seen-unfortunately the others are extremely difficult to find apart from a few brief clips online. I guess I’ll have to give it another go at finding some of them.

    Not a documentary, but James Ellroy: City of Demons is a guilty pleasure for me. It’s actually very well-made if you can get past Ellroy’s decidedly off-beat presentation and the animated Barko segments. I think even those parts are fun- in a so bad it’s good sort of way- but I can imagine some poor viewer unfamiliar with Ellroy wondering what they hell they were watching.

    • December 3, 2020 10:06 am

      Hi Dan, yes I have a soft spot for City of Demons. Although I think it suffers as Ellroy didn’t have alive audience. At a bookstore reading his jive, free-flowing style is hilarious. I can understand how it lost something when you have to deliver it to camera.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: