If we thought the distress and uncertainty of 2020 was behind us, recent events have sadly suggested otherwise. COVID-19 and political unrest are likely to be remain for a while, making at-home entertainment more essential than ever. And though some look to movies for escape, when it comes to documentaries, it’s often the opposite.
The best docs unspool and explore true stories about public figures, cultural trends and the state of the world, often forcing us to face unsavory (and uncomfortable) truths so that we might truly understand them. In 2020, boy was there a lot to try to understand. Thankfully, for those us who love music and film there was also reflection and celebration.
As we take a final look back at what has been universally labeled as a “dumpster fire” year, it is not surprising that the year’s non-fiction fare was as painstakingly comprehensive as it was provocative. If you missed any of the following new documentaries last year, we cannot urge you enough to stream each of them right away. 2020 was rough, but thanks to these films, it was also enlightening and even entertaining. Being able to watch them from the comfort of our living rooms was a bonus.
10. Michael Des Barres- Who Do You Want Me to Be? (VOD)
Disclosure- I happen to be acquaintances with the subject and can wholeheartedly say that this film really captures the wit and spirit of the ubiquitous actor/singer, Michael Des Barres. MDB is one not only an accomplished musician who 1. was part of the early glam rock scene, 2. wrote one of the biggest alt-pop hits of all time and 3. turned in one of the most high profile performances at the original Live Aid concert, he was also one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood for years. Delving back into his family history (he was the son of an aristocrat druggie and a schizophrenic showgirl) and later into his life as an actor, singer, husband and father (he was married to “I’m With The Band” author Pamela Des Barres) the film explores the life of this master of reinvention via interviews with the likes of pals Don Johnson, Ed Begley, Jr. and more. But the star here is Des Barres himself whose way with words is as poetic and dramatic as it is honest and self-reflective. This rock doc may not have been as well-publicized as others last year but it was one of the best. Don’t miss a sweet surprise moment featuring Des Barres’ pal Little Stephen Van Zandt during the end credits.
9. The Go-Go’s (Showtime & coming to digital formats on Feb. 5)
The Go-Go’s were the first all-female band to write their own songs, play their own instruments and hit no. 1 on the charts with their debut, Beauty and the Beat (1981). They meant a lot little girls like me in the ’80s and their impact is still being felt to this day. These ladies are legends! So it’s surprising they hadn’t had a doc made about their career before 2020. Director Alison Ellwood’s chronicle is as dynamic as the band itself, but it also shows the dark side- exposing the sexism the band dealt with throughout its career and the ways in which drug use and conflict over writing credits and publishing rights can tear apart even the best of friends and creative partners. The archival footage and interviews with peers and industry folk make for a giddy ride while the openness and obvious mutual respect between Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, and Kathy Valentine provide insight into how each struggled to get and keep the beat going.
8. Hillary (Hulu)
As I shared back in April, I’ve always been a Hillary Clinton fan, even if many I know felt she came off cold and untrustworthy. This Hulu documentary sought to transcend her image a bit by revealing lots of never before heard anecdotes and unseen footage from her 2016 presidential campaign. Re-watching in context of current events is a somewhat depressing if not fully forlorn experience. What could she have done differently to beat Trump? What would the world be like if Clinton had won not just the popular vote but the electoral college as well? You will ask yourself these questions more than once… But beyond the woulda/coulda/shoulda stuff, you will learn a lot and maybe even let yourself admire her like I do. From her college days to her life as First Lady to her time as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, what emerges is a smart and yes, compassion woman who sought power and influence but also wanted to make the world a better and more fair place.
7. Leap of Faith (Shudder)
The Exorcist remains one of the most disturbing horror films of all time and when you watch this fascinating doc about its creation you are able to understand exactly why. Beyond Linda Blair’s terrifying makeup and shocking dialog, the director’s choices- most of which were inspired by other masterpiece movies and artworks- toy with not only our emotions but senses too. William Fredkin spills it all in this engrossing look at the movie that reveals the thought processes behind every significant sound, image and casting decision, most of which required the filmmaker to go against norms, judgement and at times, the author of the original book the film is based on. Ironically, Fredkin’s “faith” in his vision made this story of possession ring true- so true that to this day, certain scenes still bring a chill. The wonder of this thorough look at The Exorcist is that the eeriness of it all is enhanced not erased by pulling back the demon’s bed sheets.
6. Beastie Boys (Apple+)
Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz will never be “the Beastie Boys” again due to the loss of third member Adam “MCA” Yauch, but they can conjure the influential trio’s magic by looking back with images, stories and the music itself. They did all three on the book tour for career-chronicle the “Beastie Boys Book,” and their longtime collaborator and pal Spike Jonze was wise enough to film it for this unusual but effective Apple+ documentary. Discussing their 35+ year career on stage, the New York-bred punks offered a scripted TED-Talk-like experience in Beastie Boys Story. Old photos as seen in the book and video footage from early and later in their journey are mixed with recollections and older, wiser perspectives that highlight the input of producers such as Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin and the relationships the guys had with each other, their fans and the hip hop and rock communities. Success came fast for the Beasties, but credibility was another matter and the band did a lot of growing up in between. For those of us who grew up with them, the film is a bold and bittersweet reminder of how these boys became men and eventually icons too.
5. Circus of Books (Netflix)
My first job was in a shop right next to Circus of Books in Silver Lake (where I also lived) so the store and its owners have felt like part of my community for a long time. Add the fact that I used to pick up the LA Weekly there every Thursday to the small world-ish feels. When each COB location closed (in Silver Lake and WeHo) L.A. lost another thing that made it special. Angelenos will enjoy learning about the landmark bookshop and its place in local history in this doc by Rachel Mason, but the human approach make it a fascinating watch for anyone, anywhere. Circus tells the story of Karen and Barry Mason’s unexpected retail business selling adult films and novelties alongside mainstream magazines and eventually getting into gay porn production. The West Hollywood space closed in 2019 and this film is sort of a tribute by the filmmaker -the pair’s daughter Rachel- who explores the family dynamics alongside the business via interviews with employees, customers and more.
4. Zappa (VOD)
Nothing will ever be able to get inside the weird genius mind of Frank Zappa but this film made by Alex Winter (of Bill & Ted fame) tries quite admirably. Winter got the keys to the castle so to speak when Frank’s widow Gail granted him full access to the Zappa vaults underneath his family home in Laurel Canyon, and the result is a refreshed and fleshed out chronicle of Zappa’s career, with lots of never before seen footage and a focus on his art that goes beyond album releases and explores the man as an avant garde composer, filmmaker and provocateur. Zappa’s life in Los Angeles makes him a hero here in a lot of ways- from the bands and clubs he played early on to his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to the family he raised here. The recent conflict between the family members over his estate following Gail’s death is not mentioned, but his role as a not-so-present father (which led daughter Moon Unit to request time with dad, leading to the hit, “Valley Girl”) does provide context to the conflict. More importantly for Winter, this unflinching portrait aims to capture the creative inspirations of the man, musician and outsider, and for the most part it does.
3. TIE: Miss Americana (Netflix) and Suzi Q (VOD)
Two very different music artists get a chance to show us who they really are in Miss Americana and Suzi Q. Suzi Quatro is spotlit in the documentary from Australian filmmaker Liam Firmager, which gives the bassist and singer the props she deserves for inspiring everyone who came afterward, from Joan Jett and Debbie Harry (both in the film) and everyone that followed. It is a must-see for women who want to rock, but really, for everyone who loves music made by any gender.
Rock fans might not have gravitated towards the Taylor Swift doc for Netflix, but they should give it a view if they missed it because it shows that the struggles of success aren’t so much different whether the genre is rock, country or pop. I was never a Swift fan but I came away from Miss Americana as a new one, mostly due to watching her writing process, but also due to the vulnerability she showed here in terms of her image, her voice (the political questions are particularly intriguing) and music in general. Swift is a badass even when she’s singing about ex-boyfriends, maybe especially when she’s doing so, the attempts to box her in have clearly proven unsuccessful. This documentary shows why.
2. TIE: Totally Under Control, Unfit (VOD) The Way I See It (Peacock) & All In (Prime Video)
If you tried to forget about politics and our messed up seeming world in 2020 you probably failed. So the next best thing, the better thing, especially when dealing with the onslaught of dishonesty and ignorance on social media, was to dive into it and do your homework.
For those who wanted to back up conspiratorial ways of thinking, there was Plandemic and similar propaganda, much of which could quickly be repudiated via a couple of google searches. But real educational entertainment was out there too, and a lot of it helped us put the current chaos into perspective. It still does. From an insider look at the contrast between the Obama and Trump administrations by White House photog Pete Souza, to the investigation into Donald’s mishandling of COVID-19, to a psychological profile of 45’s severe narcissistic personality disorder, we had a lot of information to digest and doing so really helped us understand why we are where we are now.
Documentaries are about learning and I learned more from All In, which delves into the roots of voter suppression, more than any other. Produced by Stacey Abrams, who is now being rightfully credited with helping flip Georgia blue, the doc covers her personal story and how it led her to fight for voting equality. But it also goes all the way back to slavery and the activism for social justice that followed, showing how this fight back against our country’s history of keeping black, brown and poor people from voting helped systemic racism and disenfranchisement continue. More than any other film in recent memory, All In, laid out exactly what we’ve been dealing with and why certain types of leaders are where they are, reminding us all that the right to vote and have our say about government is sacred.
1. The Social Dilemma (Netflix)
With Trump getting banned from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the discussion about social media’s omnipresent power continues. This compelling documentary from Jeff Orlowski explores how we became addicted, how these platforms monitor, manipulate and basically mess us up (especially youth) and how the “masters” who let the genie out of the bottle have absolutely no idea how to put it back in- as revealed by the guys who actually created it. Documentary or no, this was the scariest movie of the year.
John Lewis: Good Trouble, Tiger King, Crip Camp, The Last Dance, Disclosure, Mucho Mucho Amor, Trial By Media, After Truth, McMillions, Be Water, You Don’t Nomi, Skin: A History of Nudity in Movies, Class Action Park, The Last Blockbuster, On The Record, Time