Directed by Matthew Miele & Justin Bare
Review by Allan Tong
You've likely seen this iconic image. But in February 1964, nobody expected a "pop" group of English moptops called The Beatles to last. Similarly, nobody bet on a loudmouthed black boxer named Cassius Clay to become the world heavyweight champion.
Scottish-born photographer Harry Benson wasn't lucky to photograph these two legends crossing paths--he was smart and hard-working. A fine, new documentary by Matthew Miele and Justin Bare reveals that it was Benson's idea to pair the Fab Four with Clay (later to rename himself Muhammed Ali). The Beatles were Miami, Benson needed shots for his editor, and Clay/Ali was in town.
Benson's images graced Life magazine and other major media outlets for decades. He's photographed scores of celebs such as Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Jack Nicholson and Judy Garland as well as politicians including the Clintons, Reagans and Martin Luther King. Arguably, Benson rises above the herd of celebrity photographers because of his memorable hard news images.
He photographed Robert Kennedy at play with his children, but also as he lay dying on a kitchen floor in Los Angeles amid chaos and screams. Benson was also there with his camera as the Berlin Wall went up, then down, three decades apart. He also risked safety to chronicle civil rights marches and police beatings in the racist American South of the mid-60s, as well as a Ku Klux Klan cross burning. Twenty years later he stayed in a Somali camp to photograph the bony limbs of children dying from horrific famine.
These images are recounted in Shoot First largely through Benson's recollections. Weighing in are his assistant, daughters, wife/manager, Gigi and subjects like film director James Brooks, Joe Namath, Sharon Stone and Robert Kennedy's daughter, Kerry.
Benson's mind is sharp and his energy high in this film. Shoot First praises him, perhaps too much. We learn that the young Benson started shooting on London's Fleet Street, but don't quite understand how this cutthroat environment shaped him. Benson is driven and works hard, but what else? Does his obsessiveness come at a price to his family or himself?
Still, Shoot First is a delight for fans of photography and pop culture who wish to hear Benson's stories bring to life his images of the past 50 years.