Adam Nimoy’s long-awaited documentary about his father, For the Love of Spock, is now playing in selected theatres and is available for streaming purchase on several services, after a storied build-up and crowdfunding campaign. Conceived initially as a film about the character of Mr Spock, the film evolved into a portrait of Leonard Nimoy himself, told through the eyes of his family and friends. The final product reveals some very interesting personal details, but also pulls back at key moments and recycles some overly familiar Star Trek stories that undercut its effectiveness as a film.
Adam Nimoy himself is the central figure in this film, addressing the audience directly and performing many of the interviews. All the usual talking head suspects appear, including the surviving Trek cast and much of the new cast, but the most interesting insights come from those who are rarely or never interviewed, such as Leonard’s brother and Adam’s sister, who relate intimate personal stories about their time with this remarkable man. Leonard Nimoy also appears in archival interviews to relate the key events of his life, including his childhood in Boston and, most interestingly of all, his early years in Los Angeles when he did any job he could to support his wife and family while trying to advance an acting career.
It’s fair to say that most people interested in this film already know the story of Star Trek, which has taken on the character of a legend in recent years. Most self-respecting fans of popular culture can walk through the steps of how Gene Roddenberry got the show on the air as if they were the stations of the cross: the early “Wagon Train” ideas; the first pilot; the cast changes; the second pilot; cancellation and finally the road to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The individual anecdotes, and even some of the phrases, are also etched across the collective pop culture memory, such as how the first pilot was “too cerebral”, so it’s a bit tedious when For the Love of Spock retraces those familiar steps. But when the film turns personal, it gets more revealing and compelling.
One very clear message the documentary conveys is that Leonard Nimoy was indeed the multi-talented and extremely creative person we all imagined, and not just in terms of art. Some may be surprised to learn of his service in the military, for example, in the early 1950s, and how in the early years of his career in Hollywood, he worked jobs such as driving a taxi, working in a pet store, selling vacuum cleaners and servicing fish tanks. And everything he did, he learned to do well. Possessed of an open, curious mind, Nimoy never stopped reaching out for new challenges and experiences, some sublime (his photography) some fairly ridiculous (his musical career — which lasted longer than any casual fan will realize). He brought all of that intellectual and artistic curiosity to Spock, and it helped to make the character the icon he remains.
The film is less effective when delving into Nimoy’s faults, which makes some sense, given its elegiac nature, but for the viewer looking to learn something new, it’s a bit disappointing. Not that his flaws are completely bypassed: Adam Nimoy is frank about his own fractured relationship with his father, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s, when their lifestyle and politics diverged sharply. Both father and son dealt with substance abuse issues, Leonard eventually seeking treatment for alcoholism (he picked up the habit of drinking heavily at the end of the day) and Adam experiencing unspecified challenges with drugs (he mentions becoming a “Deadhead” but remains vague on the details). But the parts of the story that the curious fan will want to hear (such as Leonard’s touch-and-go relationship with Gene Roddenberry, his stage career in the 1970s, his discomfort and ultimate acceptance with his place in pop culture) are de-emphasized and the finale evolves into a sentimental eulogy.
Leonard Nimoy is sorely missed, of that there is no doubt, and For the Love of Spock is certainly a loving tribute to this remarkable man. But one suspects that the man himself would have wanted the film to be more penetrating than it winds up being. It’s never less than watchable, and there are wonderful little moments, but it doesn’t have the revealing personal moments that, for example, To Be Takei had in spades. Hard-core Star Trek fans will learn less here than the casual fan, and perhaps it’s best to view this documentary as a tribute and an obituary, rather than an attempt at a comprehensive and unvarnished exploration of a deep and complex person.