Festive Firsts: I Am Santa Claus (2014)
Director: Tommy Avallone
Featuring: Mick Foley, Russell Spice, Jim Stevenson, Bob Gerardi, Santa Claus
Synopsis: This documentary follows five very different men with the same important job – when Christmas rolls around, they put on the red suit and hat of Santa Claus. The movie shows approximately a year in the life of these Santas, all of whom come from wildly different circumstances, but take the viewer on a sweet, beautiful journey together.
Thoughts: I’ve never written about a documentary here at Reel to Reel before, because on the surface they don’t exactly fall under the aegis of what I started this blog to write about. I like to follow film trends and story structure and how one influences the other, and in a true, well-made documentary, most of those standards don’t apply. A documentary should, in essence, point a camera at reality and show the viewer what the world is like with as little structure or manipulation from the filmmaker as possible, regardless of trend or trope. I do like documentaries, however, very much, and when this one turned up in my annual Christmas movie binge-a-thon, it hit a chord with me that left me extremely anxious to talk about it.
As I said in the synopsis, I Am Santa Claus is about the journey of some department store Santa Clauses over the course of a year, leading up to the Christmas season. It’s one of those documentaries that takes a long look at something that is out there, in the real world, under our noses all the time, but that few of us ever really stop to think about. The movie lets you in on a lot of what it means to be an itinerant Santa, the realities of job hunting, of learning to be a Santa Claus, and of what kind of spirit it takes to essentially give up your own Christmas season in order to bring a little magic to other people. It also gives you a sense for what Santas all over the world must feel – at one point Santa Jim (who, it should be pointed out, has no real family of his own) starts to break down a little as he tells the story of how he once took a picture with a four-day-old child, and thinks about the fact that he’s going to be a part of this other family’s Christmas memories long after he has gone. It’s just one of many strongly emotional moments in the movie, and the waves of emotion coming from Jim pull the viewer I like few other movies, scripted or otherwise, that I’ve seen this year.
At the same time that director Tommy Allevone tells you about the mutual experiences of all Santas, he gives you five nicely individual stories as well. One Santa lives in his daughter’s basement, unable to afford any other accommodations. Another spends his time mostly alone, missing his boyfriend, who lives 700 miles away. A third is so dedicated to the role that he’s had his name legally changed and dream of the day he’ll own his own restaurant – where he’ll be Santa year-round.
The thing that may pull a lot of people to this film who wouldn’t otherwise spend their time on a documentary about 21st century Santas, though, is the story of Santa Mick, aka Mick Foley, the former WWE superstar also known as Mankind. I’m honestly not a wrestling fan – I never have been – but even I’ve heard of Mick Foley, so it was a bit of a surprise when I discovered this gargantuan man known for a pretty brutal form of entertainment has transformed himself into the gentle symbol of the Christmas season. In fact, the movie focuses on Mick’s first time out as Santa, and shows him in a light so inexplicably sweet that you genuinely start to tear up as you watch him interact with the children. They don’t know squat about Mick Foley, they don’t care about any wrestling championships, all they know is that they’re staring up into the eyes of Santa Claus, and that hits you right in the gut. Mick himself (who, it should be mentioned, is one of the movie’s producers as well as one of the subjects) comes across as someone with an endearing, lovely heart, and his desire to spread that love as Santa Claus never for a second feels contrived or put-upon for the cameras. It would be easy to dismiss him, to say that being a producer it’s easy for him to act the role or demand the cut that shows him the best in front of the cameras. I’m telling you though, friends, if he is acting in this movie, then he’s the best actor to come from the ranks of professional wrestling since Andre the Giant, because I bought it entirely.
I should mention that this is not a family film. Although the core of it is sweet and kind, there is some harsh language, a good bit of sexual conversation (most – but not all – about the rather unconventional lifestyle one of the Santas leads), and most importantly, it’s a movie that shows you exactly how Santas are made. Watching men bleaching their beards or limping along with a full-size candy cane as they try to make ends meet may well kill the magic for a small child. For older folk, though, I think it actually does an awful lot to bring the magic back.
The movie is currently available on Netflix streaming, as well as for rental on other VOD services, and for purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray, so check it out if at all possible. It’s one of the most unexpected – yet most charming – Christmas movies I’ve seen in a very long time.
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