These documentaries are no bad-hair Ken Burns. They have mad compelling narratives and astonishing visuals.
20 Feet From Stardom
20 Feet From Stardom tells the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes joyful tale of five background singers, all, who at some point, tried to be the main act. They are the nameless voices that shape the character of a track, album, or an entire artist’s sound (artists like David Byrne, David Bowie, Sting, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, etc).
You will most likely not know who these women are when you watch the documentary, but one won a Grammy and performed with the Rolling Stones, Sting, and Bruce Springstein. Another was the original female vocal of the Rolling Stones’ track “Gimme Shelter” and undermined the racist undertones of Lynard Skynyrd's music by singing background vocals for “Sweet Home Alabama.”
The documentary captures intimate moments with these singers, who have all struggled and been almost unknown during their careers despite their incredible talent. But they are also some of the most vivacious personalities on the screen. You hear them sing, laugh, and cry. You see them work, reunite, and live their day-to-day.
One caveat: there is no one cohesive narrative, so upon first viewing, it seemed that there was an endless stream of characters. But, by three-fourths of the way in, I was like, "Oh, this is a story about these five specific women." Definitely would see this a second time.
Here comes another documentary to ruin our childhoods: SeaWorld is mad evil. I use "ruin" in a good way, though, as knowing evil is better than ignoring it.
In the 1980s, "fishermen" captured the orca Tilikum and sold him to SeaLand, where he learned to perform all those whale tricks. He was then sold to SeaWorld in the early 1990s and still performs there today. One problem: Tilikum has killed three people. (One death irrefutably by him, two still speculated.)
The documentary makes this essential point: no orcas (i.e. “Killer Whales”) in the wild have ever harmed a human. It’s really the psychological and physical damage of orcas by humans that cause their violent nature in captivity.
Filled with suspense and horror stories, Blackfish removes the innocence and spectacle from SeaWorld, showing the disgusting treatment of animals and revealing the lies told to trainers and the public.
More Than Honey
More Than Honey is the most visually striking film I have ever seen. It’s like Planet Earth x 1000.
Swiss director Markus Imhoof used SPECIAL TECHNOLOGY to actually enter hives and spy on bees. The opening shot is a closeup of the queen bee hatching, which is absolutely breathtaking.
He then paints the bigger story: bees are dying around the world, but no one really knows why. And that "why" is important because bees are the number one pollinator for the food we eat. As Einstein said (or, at least, what Imhoof says Einstein said), “If bees were to disappear form the globe mankind would only have four years to live.”
One caveat: the documentary is narrated in German, so unless you got that German connect, you might miss some of the visuals if you are looking at the subtitles the whole time. Life is hard, I know, but I guess this just means you have to watch More Than Honey several times. Shoot!Dirty Wars
Like Blackfish, Dirty Wars is one of those documentaries that makes you want to run outside and scream "Why is the world like this?!"
The documentary (which is based off of Mr. Scahill’s book) follows investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill as he questions a series of unexplained American military raids in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. It also follows his personal struggles as a journalist publishing extremely controversial material.
Dirty Wars is super compelling and is shot more like a movie than an actual documentary. Sometimes the narration is distracting and the shots seem a bit silly. One obviously staged scene shows Scahill sitting at his desk, thinking hard. Another shows him walking into a store, buying milk with his angsty narration of “I can’t lead a normal life,” etc. But even though these moments were slightly irritating, the scope of the documentary was to capture elements of Scahill’s life as he reported these stories years ago. Using these scenes and the subject matter from his actual reporting, Dirty Wars strikes the viewer, leaving them with a questioning, angry, hopeless feeling.
On my “To-See” list:
The Act of Killing
Somehow director Joshua Oppenheimer convinces Anwar Congo to reenact the coup and genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s and to make a documentary from the footage.
Spark: A Burning Man Story
Okay, so I went to Burnng Man this year, and I am just curious.