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Between streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu as well as the almighty YouTube, there is a never-ending demand for content. And its in this media-rich environment that the documentary has thrived. No longer dependant on theatrical releases and home video sales, there is greater access to the medium than ever before.
The 2010’s have seen a variety of acclaimed docs, many on powerful social issues. But there has been a sub-genre of pop-culture themed documentaries that are just as engaging. Whether chronicling famous icons, flash-in-the-pans or underground artists, there’s no shortage of material.
With that in mind, let’s look at several entertaining good documentaries showcasing personalities across the entertainment spectrum.
Ian Lemmy Kilmister, the late Motörhead frontman and bass player extraordinaire is the subject of this engaging and warm-hearted documentary that traces his beginnings as prog-rocking bassist for space-rockers Hawkwind to his storied tenure with his long-running rock outfit.
Featuring revealing interviews Kilmister himself, as well as his son and a host of rock and roll luminaries including Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Metallica’s James Hetfield and New Order’s Peter Hook, it paints a picture of man who offers more poignancy and pathos than his hard-drinking, groupie-chasing persona would suggest.
During the late 80’s, “Eddie Lee Sausage” and “Mitchell D” moved into a modest apartment in San Francisco’s Lower Haight district. Soon they discovered their walls were paper thin, giving them constant access to the incessant bickering of Peter J. Haskett and Raymond Huffman, an oft-inebriated (and now deceased) pair of roommates who attacked each other with an endless barrage of profanity-laden insults.
Eddie and Mitchell began taping the pair for their personal amusement, sharing cassettes of their recordings with friends. Soon the tapes spread into underground pop-culture, resulting in an album release. This bizarre tale is the focus of the hilarious and eye opening documentary ‘Shut Up Little Man’, which helps to flesh out Haskett and Huffman’s backstories, in both laugh-inducing and somber ways.
Canadian prog-rockers Rush have always been an acquired taste. Their ambitious, often exhausting compositions accompanied by vocalist Geddy Lee’s nasal wail make them a love or hate proposition.
‘Beyond The Lighted Stage’ makes a case for the former, showing how a bunch of admittedly nerdy rockers have influenced a wide array of musicians of different genres. Interviews with the power trio and their sonic disciples and peers (including Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, and Kiss’s Gene Simmons) make a compelling case for their musical legacy while also documenting their triumphs and tragedies along the way.
It seems in recent years that civil public discourse is on the decline. Social media feels like a battlefield between political correctness and hate speech. Reality Television often caters to the lowest common denominator. The notion of polite society seems both quaint and sadly archaic. And you can trace that sense of pop-culture societal corrosion to the emergence of Morton Downey, Jr. in the late 1980’s.
The chain-smoking rageaholic was the host of his own self-titled talk show, who would get in screaming matches with his audiences and guests, attacking anyone and everyone while discussing deeply divisive topics. Needles to say, the show was a hit. Until he went too far.
The documentary “Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” showcases Downey Jr’s life, career and meltdown in a no-holds barred fashion, (totally appropriate given the subject matter) while examining the disturbing repercussions from his acidic program.
The final entry on our list focuses on two of the most influential auteur filmmakers in cinema: ‘The Master of Suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock, and acclaimed French New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut.
In ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’, we see two masters of their craft discussing the language of film. The documentary, chronicles a weeklong interview in 1962, where Truffaut picked Hitchcock’s brain to dissect his groundbreaking filmmaking techniques that influenced countless filmmakers and classic movies.
These interviews would go into Truffaut’s book (which shares the same title as the film), but hearing the interviews (along with commentary from contemporary directors including David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and Richard Linklater) is even more revelatory, revealing Hitchcock’s modestness and Truffaut’s childlike inquisitiveness. It’s a must-see for any diehard filmbuff and Hitchcock obsessive.
It’s safe to say as long as streaming services and curious cult entertainers exist, there will be rabid fans ready and willing to make documentaries to capture their pop-culture heroes. And with a seemingly neverending unearthing of internet celebrities and long lost celebrity ephemera, the potential is endless.
And given we’re in an age where some of the most vital cultural figures are passing away with increasing regularity, the need to capture their history and impact is more important than ever.
That concludes our list! Be sure and check out my lists of good documentaries from 1991-1995, 1995-2000, 2000-2005 and 2005-2010 for even more must-see docs! And be sure to give a glance at my list of honorable mentions below.
Honorable Mentions: ‘The Jinx’,’ Going Clear’, ‘Montage of Heck’, ‘Sound City,’ ‘Birth of the Living Dead,’ ‘The Nightmare,’ ‘Project Nim,’ ‘All Things Must Pass,’ ‘Citizen 4,’ ‘No No: A Dockumentary’