I’ve been looking through the documentaries section on Netflix lately (on a side note, I’ve become convinced that the time we all spend Netflix-browsing amounts to no less, and possibly way more, than the many, many torturous hours we racked up in our ‘old,’ pre-internet-streaming lives, circling the crammed shelves in the video store on a Friday evening, trying to figure out what to rent – it’s just become that bad. But I digress…) and it compelled me to mentally catalogue the films I’ve watched over the years that have really managed to stick with me.
I tend to gravitate towards biographical accounts of creative people (no real surprise there) so this short list is pretty heavy on that front. I can just as easily get sucked into docs about crime or politics or all the poisonous food we consume, but then I spend the aftermath obsessing about whether or not it was ‘true’ or horribly biased or what have you.
These are in no particular order:
1. Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (dir: Freida Lee Mock, 1994, Ocean Releasing)
This is one of the first contemporary art-related documentaries I was shown as a young adult, in my undergrad Visual Studies class. It focuses on then-21-year-old Yale architecture student Maya Lin, who won the design competition for the Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial in the early ’80s. She weathered a ton of backlash and controversy and I remember it seemed so overwhelming to imagine someone just a little older than I was at the time, dealing with these harsh critics and making art on such a large, public scale. Lin seemed so brave. And, everyone ate their words – when it was finally completed, the memorial was considered hugely successful, and still stands as one of the most introspective and emotional public art tributes in the USA.
2. Surfwise (dir. Doug Pray, 2007, Magnolia Pictures)
The story of a doctor in the 1960s who left his job, packed up his wife and nine kids (yes, nine), and went to surf and live out of an RV. Sometimes their nomadic existence seemed idyllic, sometimes borderline abusive. The family’s nonconformist lifestyle was both really inspiring and… also pretty f*cked up. This was one of those engrossing films that I finished watching and immediately burst into confused yet oddly cathartic tears. I do that sometimes. You should see this.
3. I am Trying to Break your Heart: A Film About Wilco (dir. Sam Jones, 2002, FusionFilms)
Once upon a time there was a girl who pretty much worshipped at the altar of Wilco, and who somehow managed to fly to their hometown of Chicago over the weekend where they not only performed but also premiered the film, and it was like, the most ridiculously awesome thing ever. And
I she still loves watching this documentary. True story.
4. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (dir. Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005, Sony Pictures)
God, this one’s an actual heartbreaker. Daniel Johnston, cult musician and artist, has been called the “greatest singer-songwriter alive today.” He also suffers from mental illness and lives at home with his parents, where he obsesses over demonic possession and a former childhood sweetheart. This doc could have been an exploitative mess, but manages to be respectful and tender, yet unflinching.
5. 7 Up series (dir. Michael Apted, 1964-2012 and ongoing, Granada Television)
“Give me a boy until he is 7 and I will give you the man.” An attempt to succinctly describe this documentary series while still doing it justice feels like an exercise in futility, as I’m sure there have been full-blown academic theses written about it over the last 40 years. In 1964, 14 seven year olds from different upbringings in London were chosen to participate in interviews where they were asked about school, their families, and what they wanted to do when they grew up. The experiment was predicated on the assumption that social class basically pre-destined all their futures, but the series has become so much more than that.
The children were charming, arrogant, shy, and funny. Seven years later, at age 14, they were interviewed again — and so on, every seven years, up until the latest instalment at age 56. It’s absolutely fascinating to get glimpses of these people and how they’ve grown up and changed; from childhood through adolescence, careers, marriage and their own kids, divorce, aging, and also self-awareness about their participation (or lack thereof) in the ongoing films. Masterful, compelling, the whole thing. Great binge-watching material.
6. Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind of Tom Ford (OWN productions, 2011)
My friend Kristin had me watch this (she’s always sending me interesting and amusing fashion sites and video links, including this classic) and although I tended to be somewhat neutral on Tom Ford the brand, I became really intrigued by Tom Ford the man. He’s exacting, obsessive, obviously hugely talented and creative, surprisingly (?) self-reflexive, and he bathes about three times a day, sometimes five. Tom Ford, you have seduced me.
There are SO many great biographical documentaries out there — do you have any to recommend?