Non fiction filmmaking is a rich treasure trove, with the term ‘documentary’ denoting a varied space where pure facts are presented in imaginative ways, to bring discerning viewers more than just informative tid bits or afford them something beyond a vantage point from where history of mankind, individuals and events come in their grasps.
Today, documentaries have hugely spiked our living interests, with streaming platforms and its traditional ally television unveiling more intimately researched stories and whetting our perennial appetites for fraternising with deeply human tales that function as portraits of unblemished life scripts.
They appeal as they go beyond bookish knowledge, the known terrain of social possibilities and burrow into the soul of their subjects, that is when the works transcend the format and define filmmaking bona fides limited to no one box. Atleast I never distinguish between fiction and non fiction formats. The power is in the telling.
Hence, the diversity of representing figures and timeless yet contemporary issues are etched in the memorable documentations I talk about here. They have nothing but the truth on their side, impartial to judgements and celebrating the cumulative whole with precision.
BOWIE : THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD(2016)
DIRECTOR : SONIA ANDERSON.
In the wake of the superstar’s death not too long ago, this is an interesting British made documentary that acts as a fitting farewell to the man we knew from his quixotic alter egos as Thin White Duke, Man from Mars and Ziggy Stardust. It also serves as a reintroduction to the many iconic styles, personas and gender fluid sensuality of a man who held his own in a world with too many diktats to spare.
BOWIE: THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD makes it clear how he was never an extraordinary vocalist but built a kind of oversized mystique that fuelled curiosities of the retro generation and thereafter. The archival stills, interviews of him work well to build that mystique, of someone who had tapped into his feminine side and broken across non binary limitations . I have to say he has always been seen by me as an unusually attractive individual on all fronts, with the power to draw anyone to his side, even the staunchest critic.
From his non expressive family and a cold childhood home to his early beginnings and eventual blossoming into an unlikely legend who transported us to alternate worlds lyrically and visually, Bowie was a rockstar without the overt machismo of that label. This is a traditional documentary in its step by step beats and the background music is a tad too predictable. A full on Bowie soundtrack, with intimate passages of the songs, could have punctuated the unraveling better. Even the talking heads could have illuminated on the musical alchemy more deeply.
But BOWIE : THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD is a good primer of sorts for beginners and refills fans with the nostalgia and the ecstasy of the singular figure with an indelible presence in the pop culture pantheon.
I MEAN, JUST LOOK AT HIM! ISN’T HE BEAUTIFUL?
GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO(2017)
DIRECTOR : CHRIS MOUKARBEL
From Bowie to a woman who looked up to him and let her so called ‘freak flag’ fly high against traditional choruses of conformity, it is a positive trajectory for artists to emerge as rounded individuals, away from the certitude of notions, in these heartfelt documentaries.
GAGA : FIVE FOOT TWO is a Netflix original and is the portrait of the artist as a young individual, so intimately and quietly attuned to her struggles and simultaneous magnetism that an account of her daily dealings comes to vivid life. We are all human even when millions look up to us and fame and riches really do nothing to obviate failing health, pain and crumbling under the weight of expectations. I am so glad all the grist of conventional wisdom is treated with such dignity by director Chris Moukarbel and reveals the Stefani Germanotta who had been subsumed by her stage persona. The title riffs on her height but ironically puts her in a deeply human mold, something which skeptics overlooked even when it was ever present beneath those monumental costumes and vocal pipes. I always knew as a fan her true reckoning will come and by Lord it has.
This documentary leaves the halo of Gaga completely behind by focusing on the recording sessions of her spare, eclectic album Joanne (2016), her battles with fibromyalgia, a debilitating condition where pain consumes the muscles often spiked by a high anxiety level, and her artistry that soothes and rescues her from the brink of bleak despair.
The most prized moment here is when she lets her grandmother listen to the album’s title track ‘Joanne’, based on memories of her aunt who passed away too early. That raw moment will humble any viewer. That kind of connect chastens Stefani too. To the final aerial shot of her great Super Bowl performance, GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO is nuanced and presents the interiority of the music, the brilliant, multifaceted lady at its center and many folds of fame. This is the pre A STAR IS BORN myth wrought with compassion and humanity. These are the staples that fuel her. This presentation is like a look in the mirror.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?(2015)
DIRECTOR : LIZ GARBUS
One of the most iconic lines of Nina Simone goes as, ” freedom is mine / you know how it feels” from one of her definitive tracks I’M FEELING GOOD (the song has enjoyed a modern day resurrection in a popular Jockey advertisement that maintains its liberating credo) This is the freedom her music entailed for her and her admirers across multiple generations. I, on my part, have been bewitched by her talents as a pianist and a vocalist who may sound rough hewn at first but ultimately embodies a smoky, earthy, sultry, robust prowess all of her own making.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? uncovers her biography with research and the milestones of an extraordinary journey dotted by challenges of reaching beyond others’ opinions. As her song lines from above show, freedom of self expression was what she fought for all her life, from being denied admission in an all white musical academy in her heyday, thus breaking the myth of Northern states of USA being racially integrated, to being compartmentalized for her looks and racial identity. That sting remained with her through the years when she emerged as a diva, playing the ivory notes to perfection and in the era where she defied categorization rose for the cause of civil rights especially pertaining to African American compatriots, fully embracing her roots without letting the winds of prejudice dissuade her from uninhibited artistry. MISSISSIPPI GODDAMN, her seminal protest classic, was a product of her epoch and still rings true today.
One of the most wrenching bits is related to an instance of marital rape and hits one like a ton of bricks .Here the generally obscured misogyny within that bond implodes with a slow burn. At another as she admonishes a young girl to sit down in the middle of a performance, we see the earnestness, passion and fury of her selfhood that understood the duality of her Caucasian patrons and took no prisoners. It has her iconic numbers like DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD, I LOVE YOU PORGY, I PUT A SPELL ON YOU accompanying the narration. Her music accentuates her personal manifesto and Liz Garbus’ direction rises to the occasion on that front. The rare concerts, photographs, audio recordings and interviews are deftly interspersed in a cohesive, thought provoking narrative.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE testifies to the enduring power of the lady for the musical arena, for a community. It succeeds gloriously in shedding light on how she transmuted her hatred towards the majority that once trampled her and then sang her praises to making statements of political and social justice. The sting of denial fuels her heartbreaking tale. Her courage makes her an exemplar.
MAYA ANGELOU : AND STILL I RISE(2016)
DIRECTORS : RITA COBURN WHACK, BOB HERCULES
Who has not been affected by the indomitable force of nature that is Maya Angelou sometime or the other ? Thank God for this betokened documentation of her expansive, ever expanding, timelessly relevant lifetime, a blueprint for personal evolution for anyone who has dared to put pen to paper and discovered that the ink flowed smoothly, gliding upon wave after wave of meaningful thoughts.
A literary icon, her words have resonated for multiple generations of Americans (and created global ripples) and her autobiographical musings in books like I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS, LETTERS TO MY DAUGHTER, HEART OF A WOMAN, ALL GOD’S KIDS NEED TRAVELLING SHOES and AND STILL I RISE among others (I’ve been privileged to read many of these) have opened floodgates on the highs and lows of a singular life. Race and identity figure prominently in it. This documentary, named after her landmark book, covers all the productive elements.
From the instance of her reminding a young girl in a studio audience the value of respect for elders to her collaborations with younger singers, performance in landmark play THE BLACKS to even dabbling in film direction and honourably reiterating Robert Frost’s feat by reciting a spirited free verse poem at President Clinton’s inauguration, the evergreen Angelou comes into the mainstream she has forever dominated and will continue to. There are also the men, the children and perpetuation of civil rights that are her other pivotal cornerstones.
AND STILL I RISE is extremely riveting, weaving in the facts with much needed vigour matching its subject and finding urgency in her empire of words and by extension ideas for the coming world. It is simply unforgettable, in my opinion.
NAT KING COLE : AFRAID OF THE DARK(2014)
DIRECTOR : JON BREWER
Watch this gem to know how the internalized pain of a simple man, who created music for the ages with his velvety touch and crystal clear enunciation, ran deep in private corners of his soul.
NAT KING COLE : AFRAID OF THE DARK. The title says it all. The subtitle especially, intimating us of how much colour prejudices mattered and still stubbornly persist. This is the portrait of a gentleman who hosted his own television series and was ironically persecuted for staying in a Caucasian neighborhood of great affluence, one played his melodies to the same patrons who cherished his music but not his presence. His goodwill was no act of naiveté. He was stronger than forces of hatred.
There is the father and husband of great humility too and his wife relays his forbearance while the partnership between him and daughter NATALIE COLE, especially that iconic moment of his singing self on the video screen(in a posthumous tribute) merging with Natalie singing live UNFORGETTABLE, is sure to leave one misty eyed. Great power and great responsibility was what Mr. Cole espoused.
As this immersive filmmaking feat demonstrates, systemic racism broke his heart and cut his life short. The glory was never his to truly savour. Yet his music makes us swoon and I believe John Legend is like his reincarnation, with the same clarity and smooth touch of class. AFRAID OF THE DARK will make one introspect on the very tenets of resistance and goodwill under fire.
WHITNEY : CAN I BE ME?(2017)
DIRECTION : NICK BROOMFIELD
In my previous discussion of the 2018 documentary WHITNEY, I had mentioned this preceding work as a worthy companion piece. Actually, Nick Broomfield’s probing look at the skeletons left to unearth after her untimely death introduced me to the gashes and hurts that the legend faced coupled with that mega watt voice.
It wasn’t easy for her to break through in a white washed MTV environment of popular culture fixtures. Still she arrived at an eventful point to show that a more inclusive world had already come together. Her voice propelled that transformation.
Aside from her rising stars and family history, this documentary was the first to probe the people responsible for introducing her to drugs (was it solely her brothers or her ruffian of a husband Bobby Brown? ) As a result, her pristine halo comes into a more humane core. It is adjunct with how the addiction spiraled out of control in later years, a slow poison that took her at just 48 . Plus, there is the great complexity of her bond with Robyn, her best friend and manager who had been at the receiving end of her own set of persecution owing to her supposed orientation.
These unanswered mysteries occupy this look at the crisis of identity for a woman as seemingly invincible as its subject. There are deep scars that bad influences and repression leave in a trail. WHITNEY : CAN I BE ME? goes beyond the obvious and surface level glitter to capture the beginnings of a consistent downward spiral. It breaks our hearts and leaves a lump in the throat. It begs the question: was there really anybody responsible enough to save her? Or was she too much of a mythic figure for mere mortals?
A second and final part of this documentary series will appear later this week.