As the year draws to a close, 2015 has turned out to be the year of the show biz documentary. From an Academy Award winning actor to a Grammy Award winning singer, these docs have offered a peek into the private lives of some of entertainment's legendary personalities, both in and out of the spotlight. There has also been looks at those fans who love their favorite movies, iconic characters and even classic toys a little — OK, a lot — more than your average person. And the best of the lot looked back at two outsize personas who mesmerized America by openly hating each other on television decades before reality TV existed.
Three beloved chanteuses from three vastly different eras are the subjects of Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone? and The Outrageous Sophie Tucker. Of these, Amy (now on DVD/Blu-ray) has the highest profile and has already won a handful of awards as well as Oscar front runner status. Using Amy Winehouse's own voice (via never before seen home videos and the like), director Asif Kapadia paints a fascinating portrait of an artist so overwhelmed by fame that it engulfed her. You'll feel retroactively guilty for all those "Amy Wino-house" jokes you laughed at years ago.
Nina Simone also followed a similar self-destructive path, although her abusive manager/husband certainly contributed to her many ills. Her oft-estranged daughter provides the most compelling interview footage in the film (now streaming on Netflix), while Simone's own writings bring to light the deep psychological issues fueled by years of racism that ultimately took over her life and destroyed her career.
On a much lighter note, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (now available on DVD and Amazon Prime) is a loving look at the bawdy singer mostly known nowadays as a key influence of Bette Midler's. She of course was much more than that, and this biodoc provides a good avenue to discover her and her musical legacy.
Although they became movie stars at roughly the same time, it is highly doubtful that Marlon Brando and Tab Hunter competed for roles. The latter was the ultimate blue-eyed boy next door, while the former was the original bad boy (and yes, there was that significant divide in their talent levels as well). Like Amy, Listen to Me Marlon (available on Showtime On Demand) uses a wealth of the artist's personal recordings (here on audio cassette) to provide hitherto unexplored access to the man behind the Method. (And, also like Amy, Brando's bisexuality is completely ignored.) Brando's oft-reported eccentricities make more sense in his own words, but some odd directorial choices lessen the overall impact.
Following his documentaries on such gay icons as Divine, Vito Russo and Jack Wrangler, director Jeffrey Schwarz now gives us Tab Hunter Confidential, based on Hunter's autobiography of the same name. A fascinating look at an era of deep closets in Hollywood, Confidential is at its most enjoyable when it coyly presents vintage footage of Hunter (who came out via his book in 2006) at odds with his then straight-laced image. The former matinee idol (now content to just tend to his beloved horse) also goes into detail about his relationship with another closeted star of the time, Anthony Perkins.
Much was made of October 21st of this year, a.k.a. "Back to the Future Day", the exact date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled forward in time to in the 1989 sequel Back to the Future Part II. It was a lot of fuss for what was a pretty awful sequel to a purely original classic that continues to spawn subpar follow ups, including the new documentary on its legacy, Back in Time (available on DVD and Blu-ray and now streaming on Netflix). Credit is due for rounding up all the BTTF cast and creators, but the amateurish production too skews heavily toward the die hard DIY DeLorean fans (some who even claim Part II is the best of the trilogy?!?).
Speaking of obsessive movie fans, you'll find none more so than the Angulo brothers, a.k.a. The Wolfpack (on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix streaming). Confined to their tiny, cluttered New York City apartment for most of their lives by a controlling father, the six brothers find escape in not only watching their favorite films but also meticulously recreating them with homemade costumes, sets and props. What at first is fascinating in a voyeuristic way is ultimately frustrating as director Crystal Moselle (who became very close to the family while filming) leaves many questions maddeningly unanswered, not the least of which is how Mr. Angulo got away with years of child abuse.
Another, far less dysfunctional family is at the center of Batkid Begins (available on DVD). Miles Scott, a 5-year-old cancer survivor, had his dream come true one day in 2013 when he became "Batkid", the pint-sized sidekick to his favorite superhero Batman. In what quickly steamrolled into the largest and most elaborate Make-a-Wish project ever, the entire city of San Francisco and more turned out for the event, which had become a global social media phenomenon. While lightweight, the family friendly doc is an inspirational one that proves that the goodness of humanity can still triumph in this day and age.
While also exploring the long and varied history of the popular plastic building blocks, A Lego Brickumentary (on DVD/Blu-ray and Amazon Prime) features sequences of the various, often unlikely, uses of Legos, from engineers to artists to, of course, fans, from elaborate home-made designs (most impressively a huge miniature recreation of Rivendell from The Lord of the Rings) to stop motion animated mini-movies. Although clearly sanctioned by The Lego Group (the only ones who insist on calling them "Lego bricks" instead of just "Legos"), this "brickumentary" is, like the toy, colorful and fun for the whole family.
These days we're used to seeing real people screaming at each other (and worse) on television, but back in 1968 it was such a novelty that it revitalized a whole network's news division and changed televised political reporting forever. As detailed in the engrossing documentary Best of Enemies (available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix), a struggling ABC News figured "why not?" when they decided to pit two verbose intellectuals — conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. and controversial author Gore Vidal — against each other on live TV to debate over the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. From the very first telecast, it was all too apparent that the two actively loathed one another and weren't afraid to say it to the others' face in every as-wittingly-phrased way as possible. Audiences started watching, and by the time a blustering Buckley, in response to being referred to as a "crypto-Nazi", called Gore a "queer" on live television, ABC had struck ratings gold. But it is what happened to Vidal and especially Buckley after the debates that Best of Enemies strikes gold, showing just how damaging such a public spectacle can be. American intellectualism never fully recovered.
Note: Amy, Best of Enemies, Listen to Me Marlon and What Happened, Miss Simone? are among the fifteen finalists for this year's Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
For even more 2015 show biz docs, see also the MD Reviews for An Honest Liar, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films and Tig.
Amy: B+ / What Happened, Miss Simone?: B / The Outrageous Sophie Tucker: B / Listen to Me Marlon: B+ / Tab Hunter Confidential: B+ / Back in Time: C / The Wolfpack: B- / Batkid Begins: B / A Lego Brickumentary: B / Best of Enemies: A-
The following are available on Blu-ray, DVD and/or Amazon Prime:
Reviews by Kirby Holt, creator and editor of Movie Dearest, The QuOD: The Queer Online Database and the Out Movie Guide.