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Documentary films took a different path in the late 80s, moving from a flat, informative genre to more captivating terrain, driven largely by the works of filmmakers Errol Morris and Michael Moore, and their respective films ‘The Thin Blue Line’ (1988) and ‘Roger and Me’ (1989).
Both proved a factual film could be just as gripping and compelling as any theatrical feature, adding suspense and comedic elements to a format that had more straight-laced, informative beginnings.
Both films would have a resounding impact on documentary filmmakers of the 1990s, with films like ‘Hoop Dreams’ and ‘Paris is Burning’ performing better than expected while also showcasing previously underrepresented areas of culture. In other words: real life could often be just as captivating as anything conjured up by Hollywood.
Documentaries began employing elements to get more mileage from their meagre budgets, utilizing humor, shrewd editing and informational graphics to help bring to life stories waiting to be shared with larger audiences.
With that in mind, let’s look at some other underrated good documentaries from the era that are worth checking out.
A gripping and often shocking account of the troubled production of ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ‘Hearts’ is filled with previously unreleased behind-the-scenes footage that proves that the act of moviemaking is its own form of warfare.
Issues including weather delays, Martin Sheen’s on-set heart attack, Marlon Brando’s bizarre, entitled behavior, Dennis Hopper’s drug-fueled meltdown and Coppola’s repeating threat of suicide are captured unsparingly on camera by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, with horrific and humorous results.
Fleshed out by co-directors Fax Bahr and noted writer/historian George Hickenlooper, ‘Hearts of Darkness’ was one of the first films to break through the façade of the filmmaking process and expose the unflattering realities that fuel big-budget filmmaking.
‘Hearts’ has inspired other notable behind-the-scenes docs, but none have had as much access into the elite end of the Hollywood food chain.
The end result is a crazed fever dream that is just as compelling and unnerving as Coppola’s Vietnam War film now widely seen as one of the best in the genre.
A fascinating and unusual mix of music history and espionage, ‘An Electronic Odyssey’ chronicles the life of the mysterious Leon Theremin, creator of the proto-synthesizer of the same name, which used motion instead of touch to produce an eerie sound synonymous with 1950s sci-fi movies.
But halfway through the film, things take an abrupt turn, when the genius inventor is kidnapped by the KGB to work on nascent electronic spy technology during the Cold War (helping to invent the “bug” surveillance device in the process).
The film ultimately illustrates that Theremin’s genius mind and private life were just as unusual and fascinating as the musical invention that bears his name and still captures the imagination of adventurous musicians across the globe.
Romanian immigrant and NPR commentator, Andrei Codrescu, has a deep fascination with American culture. And his sense of patriotic wanderlust fuels this film, documenting his highway travels across the U.S. in his 1968 Cadillac.
Traveling to both iconic landmarks and hidden pockets of Americana, he sees what makes the U.S. such a fascinating and unpredictable place through a fresh pair of eyes, be it a strict Christian Commune or a punk rock band full of elderly residents of a retirement community.
‘Road Scholar’ is a captivating and humorous take on American culture.
A hilarious yet also unnerving look at eccentric underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, one of the most important figures in the world of underground “comix” of the 1960s.
Zwigoff’s unsparing doc tries to dissect the psychology behind the curmudgeonly cartoonist’s often disturbing work, reflected in the perilous childhood he shared with his two mentally ill brothers, both of whom appear in the film.
Examining his complicated relationships with women and clear disdain towards the very hippie counterculture that spawned his success, ‘Crumb’ offers no easy answers, but it’s a fascinating character study nonetheless.
This examination into the life of ‘The Twilight Zone’ creator Rod Serling, ‘Approval’ chronicles the esteemed writer from his seemingly idyllic childhood to his perilous service in WWII, and how these events shaped his career as a writer with a strong social conscience, known as television’s “angry young man.”
That term reflected his deep frustrations with censorship and corporate interference, which ultimately resulted in him expressing his political themes covertly through science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Featuring interviews with collaborators including director John Frankenheimer, actor Jack Klugman, and Serling’s his wife and family, it’s a must-see film for fans of ‘The Twilight Zone’ and the golden age of television, and a tribute to a brilliant creative figure who left the world far too soon.
In many ways, the early 90s was the silver age of the documentary, with filmmakers able to engage audiences using the format in new and exciting ways.
But they were just getting started: the documentary genre would explode by decade’s end, be it exposing cracks in our political process, bizarre moments in pop culture, true crime tales and more. So be sure to check back soon, as I’ll be looking at even more good documentaries from 1995 to 2005.
But now, it’s your turn: what 90s documentaries do you feel were groundbreaking and unique? Let me know in the comments. And also be sure to check out Kerry Provenzano’s itcher list of must-see prison documentaries.
Honorable Mentions: ‘Paris Is Burning,’ ‘Hoop Dreams,’ ‘The Year Punk Broke,’ ‘Brothers Keeper,’ ‘American Dream’, ‘Anne Frank Remembered,’ ‘A Brief History of Time.’
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