Out of all of the cinematic genres, I’d say apart from horror, that of the documentary is my favourite. A fantastic true story told brilliantly is worth it’s weight in gold. Which leads us onto my Top 10 favourite documentaries of all time. Hold onto your hats- these aren’t your average examples of the genre…
10. Long Shot
Juan Catalan is convicted of a drive-by shooting even though he was at a Dodgers game at the time. He has to prove his innocence. Add to this the fact that the woman who is trying to prove that Juan actually committed the crime has an impeccable record of succeeding in the cases she takes on.
Thankfully Juan has a solicitor fighting in his corner who is prepared to go above and beyond to prove without a reasonable doubt that Juan definitely didn’t commit the murder and was elsewhere when it took place.
But then events take an unexpected turn in a VERY strange way resplendent with a cameo appearance by someone who is very well known to people around the world. And no, I’m not going to reveal all here and ruin this amazing documentary for you!
Life is stranger than fiction and this is certainly shown to be true in this instance. The film also depicts issues regarding race, the flaws of the judicial system and the goodness of some of those working in this realm along with the rabid lack of empathy of others.
A great music documentary that chronicles the bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols at the start of their trajectories.
The real revelation is the introduction to many of the genius of The Massacre’s lead singer and visionary Anton Newcombe. He exudes creativity with a healthy interest in the past but whilst being able to take that and make it his own. He isn’t interested in merely copying his influences but giving them his own twist in the present. He’s also not interested in compromising his art by commodifying it whilst selling his soul to a huge corporate record label.
Contrast this with The Dandy Warhols who have just signed a deal with Capitol Records. And this is where the two bands who had previously been running in parallel start to separate and plough their own paths.
The Dandies seem to have plenty of surface gloss but when you scratch further there’s just more surface and no substance which is the complete opposite to the brilliant art created by Newcombe and his band. There’s a very telling sequence in which The Dandies drop by the L.A. house in which Anton and Co live in the day after a huge housewarming party they have thrown. The Dandies start to be photographed as if this is their house and as if the debris we see them suddenly in the middle of is the just the way they role. It feels like narcissistic posturing that is neither real or sincere. It’s a false depiction and has more to do with empty fashion than sincere art.
In fact, you’ll see that the world depicted in the documentary is completely topsy turvy and somewhat maddening because of it. The Brian Jonestown Massacre create truly great music but don’t reap the appropriate rewards whilst the superficial image led fakery of the Dandies is rewarded with riches, festival appearances and money (admittedly after one of their songs features in a mobile phone commercial, of course).
In fact the documentary does nothing for the Dandies just as it acts as a fantastic introduction to Newcombe and co.
There’s even cameos by Genesis P. Orridge and Harry Dean Stanton. You ain’t seen nothing until you see Newcombe dressed head to toe in white resplendent with a huge furry hat on rollerboots and clutching a boombox.
8. Ramones: End of the Century
Another music based documentary, this time chronicling the history of punk pioneers, The Ramones.
From their origins in Forest Hills, Queens to their early gigs as part of the new NYC punk scene and then onto their lack of success in America but their huge fame across the pond as part of the emerging British punk scene, their history is documented candidly and without a sugar coated nostalgia.
This excellent documentary also examines the relations between band members with one incident seismically changing relations between Joey and Johnny forever wherein Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend with them being in a relationship ever since.
There are also observations regarding being the pioneers of a movement and not receiving the appropriate success because of this. You might be seen as a seminal band who are name-checked by future flavour of the month bands after that but that doesn’t mean that you suddenly become a band who suddenly sell records by the bucket load because of that. The sad irony is that as great as their records are, they probably sold more t-shirts.
7. How To Survive A Plague
A time capsule of the effect AIDS had on the gay community, America and the world. The pressure group ACT UP and later TAG both sought to spread awareness, pressure the Reagan administration into more and quicker drug testing (no mean feat) and to fight the homophobic ignorance spread by scumsuckers such as Jesse Helms (there is a fantastic part of the documentary in which activists cover Helms’ house with a giant condom to raise awareness regarding the safest combat against the disease rather than ‘abstinence’ which is what Helms was recommending).
It was the matching of brains, expertise and organisation that made ACT UP so successful. The group started to be acted to participate in drug conferences when it was quickly realised the level of knowledge and awareness that the group possessed. These were people with a great awareness of the kind of drugs and drug tests that were needed to combat the vile disease and save lives. The number of lives lost to AIDS year to year is displayed via a counter that periodically appears onscreen. And the number increases at an extremely disturbing and depressingly fast rate.
But the documentary also records the infighting that can develop within any political group which can successfully divert energies and time from where they would be much better channelled. Watch out for Larry Kramer’s argument in opposition to this. It cuts through and silences the whole hall full of bickering participants and for very good reason.
How To Survive A Plague also captures the community that has always been at the heart of the gay and lesbian community and before it became the commodifiable entity known as the LGBT community with one letter taking precedence over all others.
6. Who Took Johnny?
Johnny Gosch was one of the first children who disappeared to feature on the side of a milk carton in the U.S.
I first found out about this documentary as John Waters named it as one of his Films of the Year in Artforum magazine.
This documentary isn’t only about Johnny’s disappearance but is also a testament to his mother Noreen becoming a one-woman campaigning machine, trying to get the police to act (against the odds apparently, with the police being shown to be unwilling to investigate new leads even when new evidence is overwhelming), trying to get laws passed regarding missing children (before this the local law enforcement agencies would only investigate a missing child after 72 hours of the child going missing. It’s now widely believed that the first 24 hours after a disappearance are the most crucial for police to act to actually find the child) and advising other parents who are going through what she so tragically had to experience.
The journey that we are taken on with this film is unexpected, traumatic and ventures well and truly into the unknown. There’s even an episode near the end that changes what we have seen before and what we will possibly think afterwards about the whole case and possibly about Noreen.
An exemplary piece of filmmaking which deserves wider exposure not just so that people can see how a brilliant documentary can be made but also to educate about the dangers of child abduction.
5. Abducted in Plain Sight
Every now and again I see a documentary that is so warped, so surreal that I think ‘What the fu…’ Abducted In Plain Sight takes that to the very limit.
Robert Berchtold infiltrates the Broberg family with one intention- to get to their underage daughter Jan. He realises that to do this he has to get through her parents.
This is just the beginning as to tell you anymore would be to ruin the impact and power of this piece of work. We are only just beginning to learn about topics such as pedophilia, grooming, narcissism, psychopathy and abduction now. Imagine getting to grips with those topics as early as the 1970’s when this documentary is primarily based.
Many critics have mentioned the parenting on display in this documentary. I’d agree with this and also suggest that issues of trust need to be addressed in relation to the topics I mentioned above. A child’s welfare should be paramount. Maybe it will be with more parents after they’ve seen this extraordinary piece of work. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. In this case, it’s a lot stranger!
4. Legend of Leigh Bowery
Leigh Bowery accomplished the impossible. He stood out in an arena (1980’s London gay clubbing that had evolved from the New Romantic movement) that was already populated primarily with peacocks and poseurs. Leigh stood out because of his outfits which not only made heads turn in whichever establishment he was in but also revolutionised the medium of fashion through his ‘outside the box’ thinking, extremes and sheer innovation. He was a creature of his own imagination and the sky was the limit.
Director Charles Atlas has sourced and utilised a broad range of sources for the clips of Leigh from TV programmes he either guested on or participated in, photographs of his wonderful creations (including some of the wonderful Fergus Greer portraits) and recordings of performances such as the Michael Clark shows and his Minty performances.
There are also contributions and reminiscences from those who knew him well with these memories being just as colourful as the man himself. There are even interviews with Leigh’s family members which add a poignancy to proceedings.
One of the things that I loved the most about Leigh was that it was impossible to pigeonhole him into one firm category regarding his art. The broad range of his talents and the mediums he applied them to are fully explored here showing what a wide ranging talent he really was and also how irreverent he could be.
An incredible documentary.
3. Grey Gardens
A mother and daughter both called Edith Beale (although one is referred to as ‘Little Edie’) both live in a rambling and crumbling mansion known as Grey Gardens in East Hampton. The estate has been raided by the local sanitation department as it was found to be in severe disrepair with no running water, infested with fleas and with rubbish piling up.
The Beales are actually the aunt and cousin of none other than Jackie Onassis who, after two high profile magazine articles about the house and it’s two occupants, provided the funds to repair the house and the estate as a whole in 1972. It was because of this exposure that brothers Albert and David Maysles decided to reach out to the Edies regarding making a documentary about them.
The resulting documentary is a peek into the lives of the pair. Both Edies are wonderfully eccentric but one of the things I love about the film is that at no point do the Maysles brothers try to portray the Beales are freaks or weirdos. They are photographed as is with no interference from the brothers as their magic unfurls in front of the camera. The film was first shown in 1975 which is the year in which another great eccentric was introduced to the public with Quentin Crisp’s life being captured in The Naked Civil Servant and shown on UK television.
I’ve always been attracted to people who have carved out their own life and personalities without caring what others may think or bending to society’s expectations. And this film is a shining beacon example of this.
The film is also VERY quotable through a number of key scenes which have gone down in film history such as being a staunch character, Little Edie’s fashion tips (the skirt can become a cape) and her search for a Libra man. We even get a fantastic dance routine with American flags.
2. Nico Icon
Witness as we see Nico progress from model to cutesy 60’s singer to the chanteuse on The Velvet Underground’s first album and then onto having a highly idiosyncratic solo career.
Her vision, the way she carved out her own life on all levels, how she chose to interact with those who entered her orbit and her mammoth intake of narcotics are all examined. But it’s her genuinely revolutionary and genre smashing music that is the real star here if there is any doubt amongst the peanut gallery who question if Nico and her legacy. How many artists released a string of genuinely five-star albums with each one being a masterpiece? Nico did whilst influencing a whole host of female artists (Siouxsie Sioux is an obvious example).
The emotional pull of the content of this documentary was completely unexpected as the film forces us to re-examine Nico’s and indeed, The Velvet Underground’s music with fresh ears as if we are discovering them for the first time.
This documentary is a revelation. Not even the now dated ‘words that appear on the screen’ trope can diminish it’s brilliance.
1. The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez
The top shot for this list of documentaries goes to this Netflix six part documentary about the abuse, torture and eventual death of eight year Gabriel Fernandez from Palmdale, California.
This is easily the most shocking piece of cinema I have ever seen. I spent roughly five hours of the six hour running time crying at what I was seeing.
But what could have been an overly sentimental ‘weep-athon’ is instead a detailed, nuanced and somewhat forensic examination of the events leading to Fernandez’s death at the hands of his birth mother and her boyfriend, the people he interacted with who reported the tell-tale signs of abuse to the relevant authorities, why Gabriel wasn’t taken away from his extremely toxic family home and what is being done (or should that be what isn’t being done) to prevent similar tragedies from happening again.
This extremely well made series should be used to test if viewers have the empathy chip or not. If they do, the tears will flow almost immediately as the ghastly and inhumane events unfurl in front of our shocked eyes.