NIGHT AND DAY, CHEERS AND TEARS, LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG, KISSED, OR CURSED?
The Andy Irons Documentary Kissed by God, as Seen in New York City By Scott Cuttre and Edited By Ben Marcus
"Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse." John Derek -Knock On Any Door-1949
Sooner or later, drugs are gonna get ‘ya. Sooner or later, drugs are gonna win - and you’re gonna lose. As I write these words, I can’t help think about the late River Phoenix and what could have been. So much accomplished at a young age, yet leaving so much potential for future greatness on the table. More recently, in the past 5 or 10 years or so, a whole bunch of talented, wealthy, famous people with every reason to live have been dropping dead in their forties and 50s: Tom Petty (1950–2017 = 66), Michael Jackson (1958 - 2009 = 51), George Michael (1963 -2016=53), Prince (1958-2016=57), Buttons Kaluhiokalani (1958-2013=55), Jay Adams (1961-2014=51), Shawn “Barney” Barron (197-2015=44),Vince Collier (1960 - 2018 = 57).
The average life expectancy in America has been dropping here in the second decade of the 21st century, but it’s still at around 78 - so dying in your 50s or 60s is dying young. From River to Buttons to Prince, what all of these guys may or may not have had in common was drugs. Either directly or indirectly, all of these people who had everything to live for died early because of taking drugs - either dying of immediate overdoses - like Michael Jackson, Tom Petty, Prince and George Michael - or from the accumulated body damage of a couple decades of drug-taking, which usually leads to heart attacks.
When Andy Irons died suddenly at age 32 in a lonely Texas hotel room in 2010, the official reason was some kind of tropical disease, but there was an undercurrent of the rumor that Andy had done himself with drugs - the kind of drugs undisclosed. Eight years after his death, the documentary, 'Andy Irons : Kissed by God', comes clean with the dirty truth about why a talented, wealthy, champion surfer with everything to live for, most likely caused his own death from an addiction to opioids and meth - and anything he could get his hands on.
Andy Irons’ death could not have been more tragic. His wife of three years, Lyndie, was pregnant and a month away from giving birth. And now the father of that child was gone forever.
It was drugs that killed him because, sooner or later, drugs are gonna get ‘ya. Drugs are gonna win.
As I hustled to make my way to the train to New York for the Andy Irons: Kissed By God premiere I ran by an older couple - Ferris Bueller style. All I caught was what a beautiful day it turned out to be. I had to agree; what was supposed to be a cloudy, rain-filled day was a gorgeous sun-gleamed scene. By the time I walked out of the jam-packed NYU Skirball premiere, the weather had turned cloudy and rain-filled - which was kind of how the movie was: Sunny and bright in some ways, dark and gloomy in others. I couldn't help feeling nostalgic for the duality Andy Irons exhibited throughout his lifetime that would ultimately be cut way too short.
There were definitely two sides to Andy Irons, and I bet he was smiling somewhere, as rain poured down hard - then suddenly stopped.
Andy Irons died in November, 2010, and the rumors and mysteries and cover-ups started almost immediately: Was it dengue fever that killed Andy, or something self-inflicted? Eight years later, the questions are still swirling, making Kissed by God one of the most anticipated surfing documentaries ever.
Directors Steve Jones and Todd Jones create a unique pace to show the two drastic sides of one of the most beloved surfers the world has ever known. Andy Irons: Kissed By God, is not your typical depiction of a tragic surf legend. The film's somber yet truth-serum-filled interviews are limited to a select few, closest to Andy. If you’re looking for a feel-good, surf-clip driven version of Andy’s life - as seen in 'Blue Horizon' or 'A Fly In The Champagne' - you’re going to be disappointed.
This is a movie about triumphant victories, loss, love, sickness, and loneliness when surrounded by those who love you the most, yet unable to figure out why their presence is useless. Andy Irons: Kissed By God starts off with the brash overview, most of which is seen in the three-minute film trailer. Then after the high octane intro, we see an exhausted, blood-shot-eyed, yet unforgettable narrator: Bruce Irons. Bruce carries the bulk of the narration along with Andy’s widowed wife Lyndie. Both committed to honestly, giving the insight, from the two people who went through every extreme high and low Andy’s personality produced.
Kissed By God, which seemed to be on its way to a truly original trail, decided to explain Andy's origin on a chronological path. For those who have been following the Irons family over the years, we get the true backstory of how Andy's parents met and then eventually divorced. Within this segment, we learn that Andy - who throughout his life resembled his mother physically - likely got his fierce competitive drive from that side of his family. While his father's laid-back personality traits and physical appearance would lie in Bruce.
While this sibling competitive rivalry has been heavily documented since the Irons name became known, the film certainly does not dwell upon that. The subject is briefly spoken about, then we move forward. One of the many subjects I was hoping for some inside opinions on, was how when both brothers were coming of age, it was Bruce not Andy that the media and peers viewed as the chosen brother to conquer the surf world. I would’ve liked to have known how Andy and Bruce viewed that subject then, and years later when Andy proved to be the competitive game changer that Bruce was expected to be. This is the first of many topics glossed over.
Andy's personal struggles at a very young age with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is given a public reveal, along with examining Andy's early school life. Acting out in class, being extremely wild, learning problems like dyslexia, eventually withdrawing from everything non-surf related. Also, the insight of two doctors of bipolar disorder and the other of substance abuse are introduced. Bruce does give some insight into this time when his parents divorced, stating it affected Andy a lot harder than himself. The film then quickly depicts Andy and Bruce's growth within the surf world - making a priority to spend substantial time on the North Shore, early sponsors, but most importantly making it clear that money was never the major driving force, at least not early in both brothers’ careers.
They were in it for fun and excitement, although Andy craved victory a little more.
This section of the film is where you find the most surf footage of Andy and Bruce together. Both were given credit for bringing a small-wave mentality to big waves, Bruce's monumental victory at the Eddie and the brutal arrival of the Kauai boys as they took over the North Shore in the 90's. This is also when Andy's first year on tour is briefly examined, both substance abuse and bipolar problems taking the blame for some of Andy's missteps during his first year on tour.
One of the most hidden, unspoken-about incidents during Andy's partying life happened during his 21st birthday Indonesia surf trip. Nathan Fletcher discusses his part in the heavy partying that lead to Andy's morphine snorting, lung collapsing, flat-line overdose.
This story only became known after Andy's death.
The results of Andy's recovering from the catastrophe in 1999's Indo trip lead to a turnaround in Andy's focus and behavior. Dr. Andrew Nierenberg, Director of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, insightfully breaks down the many side effects bipolar disorder has on people: extreme highs and lows, but if the individual suffering from the disease can harness these highs it can act as an advantage in behavior and creativity that will outshine those not suffering from the disease.
Andy certainly seemed to take advantage of these highs during his 2002, 2003, 2004 championship run, all the while injecting a much needed rebellious personality on the world tour, not seen since the likes of one of Andy’s heroes, Martin Potter.
This is when the appearance of Kelly Slater becomes a major focus of the film, causing the packed theater to sit up in their seats. Andy was known as the “People's Champ.” Kelly has always been viewed as an untouchable, a once in a lifetime freak talent, record-breaking champion. What Kelly shows in his interview, is what he has shown, more so in the latter part of his career: an inability to be anything less than honest. Kelly's input on his relationship with Andy is a highlight of the film. Even though it seemed, at least at the start of the greatest rivalry in surfing history he knew Andy as much as Andy would allow.
Kissed By God goes out of its way to show the polar opposites Andy and Kelly were in life and in depiction by the media: Kelly the white-wetsuited knight vs the black-wetsuit-wearing underdog Andy. This is also where Andy and Lyndie's relationship is brought to screen. Andy's absolute love for Lyndie brings about a soft side in which Lyndie's heartfelt interviews show.
In 2005, with Andy and Kelly’s rivalry at an all-time high, came the infamous final at Jeffreys Bay. With Kelly making a storybook comeback run to reclaim his crown came their first man-on-man heat at JBay. The final saw Kelly defeat Andy, needing a 9.3 and receiving a 9.5 on Kelly’s last wave.
There has never been a heat dissected so many times over by commentators, former tour veterans, and in videos and highly touted documentaries. Yet, Kissed By God, again doesn’t slam the door and take a definitive stand on what really went down and who should have won that final. Andy obviously thought he won the final on his last wave. As Bruce cites the result was "unfair" and that even Kelly would agree - Kelly doesn’t. This is one of the most interesting moments of the film as Kelly states Andy rode the wave down the point not really doing too much, leaving brother Bruce’s comments floating with a suggestiveness much like competitive surfing. What Bruce does make clear with the result of that specific final is the effect it had on Andy. Stating what a major turning point that loss had on all aspects of Andy's life. Which is somewhat surprising for whoever knows the details of the 2005 tour, as Andy would face and defeat Kelly in the next event final in Japan. Makes you wonder how much blame those closest to Andy put on that one particular heat when maybe they shouldn’t have? This moment is said to have lead to Andy and his Kauai crew using every drug under the sun: opiates, heroin, and coke to extreme levels.
Bruce even admits for the first time, briefly, his own problems with drugs: “They never want to accept the fact that me and my brother were big fucking monsters,” Bruce Irons says in the movie, with brutal honesty.
“Believe it or not, we were manipulative in getting what we wanted, especially if it came to drugs. You know, you start getting into heavy fucking addiction with these pills. I know that was ruling my life, and I know it was ruling my brother’s life, too.”
Andy's drug issues dominate the latter part of the film and are part of the blame as he would go on to lose to Kelly, at times badly, over the next three years until he dropped off tour. Bruce states something shocking to the audience as he tells how Andy won the ‘07 Chile contest high on coke and pills. As Bruce shares, it was certainly not the first or last time Andy competed under the influence. Yet, the most shocking detail Bruce shares is that the drugs were so prevalent at that time on tour, that Andy would walk out of the water from his heat, receiving high fives, along with friends slapping stickers concealing cocaine to Andy's wetsuit.
This begins the lowest point of Andy's life: His admission to Bruce about a desire to die, and the eerie moment when Bruce discusses a conversation with Andy revealing the visions he had when he overdosed in 1999. There was a tearful response from almost everyone in the audience after Andy's explanation of what he experienced and saw during the flatline overdose. Bruce's retelling of this conversation with his brother is one of the most honest and heartbreaking moments ever captured on film:“My brother went on to win the world title,” Bruce Irons says into the camera. “from being fucking dead.”
Lyndie Irons takes on the majority of the narration for the last segment of the film, as she continues to reveal secret battles Andy had with bipolar disorder and drug abuse: Lyndie sheds light on their personal life in which, Andy wouldn’t speak for two months at a time, just overwhelmed with loneliness: “He was very confused,” Lyndie says in the movie.
“Didn’t know what to do. He sat in our condo for two months straight and didn't say a word. I’d scream and yell and just be like, ‘Just tell me you’re okay.’ I’d do anything to try to get anything out of him. And it was nothing. Until he left one time, and that’s when I got scared. I remember finding him on a mattress with no sheet or blanket, barely alive. He always told me, ‘Don’t you dare tell anyone,’ so it’s like I had to go to freaking Foodland and act like everything was fine, and I had a dying, heroin husband at home. I look back now, and I wish, I think I was just trying to protect him, and in a way, I wasn’t protecting him, but that’s what he wanted.”
Within the peaks and valleys that controlled his life some signs of the old Andy would emerge. Three stints in rehab, one in Australia - seemed to be placing Andy on the right course to his eventual return to the tour culminating with a victory against Kelly in Tahiti, that seemed to rekindle Andy's confidence.
Throughout this final segment of the film, I couldn't help but feel for the stunning widowed wife and mother who was sitting two feet away from me in that New York college theater, wiping her eyes every couple of minutes.
Within this timespan and entering the final chapter of the film, Kelly explains how the two reconciled their relationship and planned to travel and work together to help others dealing with the same personal and medical problems afflicting Andy.
The film then quickly jumps to Andy's relapse in Mexico: the chest pains he was experiencing and the doctors explaining what Andy was going through physically and mentally due to his lifelong bipolar struggle: Most think bipolar disease is just a mental problem, but it's not. Bipolar disorder affects the entire body causing Andy's heart to age at an accelerated rate.
Fuelled by the heavy use of opiates Andy would show up to the next event in Puerto Rico missing his first heat, going through withdrawal, eyes completely bloodshot and eventually having to withdraw from the contest to the delight of Lyndie who begged Andy to just put his foot in the water then come home. Which he would die attempting to do.
The pace of the movie continued to be consistently quick, but the mood now somber as it brought us back to that confusing October 31st Miami night of partying. This is where I wanted the film to take a strong stand on what happened in Miami. The film quickly moves away but doesn’t detail the partying, the missed flights: What really happened? The screen filled with flashing reports from the dengue fever and the nightly news anchors covering the confusing causes of his death. Meanwhile, the surf world stayed quiet - or made deliberate diversions - knowing drugs played a major part with the heart attack of a morphine - among other drugs - filled body of a surfer who drew so many different lines never seen before. Yet it was the lines and pills that were ingested the night in Dallas that would conclude a surf legend’s life.
The final phone call made to Lyndie was replayed to a tear-filled audience who heard Andy’s fear-ridden voice stating: "I can't take this anymore I was throwing up on the plane, it was fucking hell. I’m in Dallas. I made it this far I’m gonna try and sleep all day here and hopefully get on the flight tomorrow. Love you, bye.”
Andy was withdrawing but still trying to get home to his pregnant wife, the love of his life, and his rock. As Bruce sadly stated: "He went to sleep and never woke up, alone... in a Texas hotel,” sadness struck the audience and myself. This was the true end to Andy Irons no one knew about. And the ones that did kept it quiet for a long time.
As the film ended, I watched Lyndie Irons wipe the tears away from her eyes for the final time that evening. For some reason I wasn't sad, I was relieved. Relieved that the man I viewed as the enemy to my favorite surfer of all time Kelly Slater, was now completely relatable. The man whose videos sections I used to dissect and compare to Kelly's was now somewhat human to me.
Much like the end in Blue Horizon when I watched my hero Kelly Slater ball his eyes out after the competitive loss of his career, I could finally relate to both superstars thanks to Andy.
As I walked out of the theater to cheers and tears I was handed a postcard-type flyer with the picture of Andy and Kelly together, both peaceful and smiling. Andy's arm around Kelly's shoulder with Kelly holding two fingers up for the sign of peace.
Andy Irons died at the age of 32, but the amount of living that went into those 32 years could span much more than a number. I exited the doors, greeted by rain falling from the New York sky. I couldn't help but smile as the sun that greeted me at the beginning of my trip gleamed on the screen. I felt so lucky to have witnessed and now feel the pain this icon felt within the sky awaiting my exit.