One of my earliest observations about documentary films is they’re especially great for niche audiences. People who may not regularly watch docs will check out a film about their favorite band, a hobby they’re into or an issue they’re strongly in support of. Often those are the only audiences for certain docs that aren’t very well made or that don’t find a universally appealing angle. Meanwhile the greatest music docs, for instance, are those that are riveting regardless of one’s usual favor for The Band, Justin Bieber, The Dandy Warhols or A Tribe Called Quest.
There’s a new music documentary that has to similarly transcend individual tastes because it involves and mashes together such distinctly different genres as classical, country, rock, r&b, jazz, hip hop and electronic music. Titled Re:Generation Music Project, the film is the latest from Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That; The Tillman Story), under hire, and it follows the making of five experimental music tracks, each of which pairs a prominent DJ (such as Pretty Lights and DJ Premier) with unlikely collaborators, such as The Doors, Martha Reeves, LeAnn Rimes, the Berklee Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Erykah Badu and legendary Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste.
Of course there people with broad enough musical tastes to be drawn in by any or all of these artists, but for the most part this is a film that could be difficult for fans of Motown who don’t particularly like The Crystal Method or fans of classic rock who don’t get the dubstep style of Skrillex (some of the fun of the film is watching awkward encounters between culturally clashing characters, such as Dr. Stanley and Pretty Lights). It doesn’t matter if the resulting songs are great or well received, though, because Re:Generation is above all an excellent look at people who are passionate about music, most of whom are open to learning about its roots, history and evolution, and the wide variety of sounds we have today. Only someone who doesn't like music at all (poor souls) can't appreciate the film.
One of the things that allows otherwise niche docs to reach wider audiences is the attention to subjects who love what they’re doing and/or talking about in the film. Most human beings can identify with a general feeling of passion for or obsession over something, anything, whether it be a person, profession, pastime, area of study or whatever. Watching Re: Generation is not necessarily enjoyable for the songs being created or its informative focus on the different music styles and their backgrounds. It’s highly enjoyable, however, if you can relate to Skrillex and Mark Ronson geeking out about their creations and their own musical interests, as well as to DJ Premier excitedly becoming educated on something he’s positively excited about learning.
I thought about this engaging aspect of documentary again while catching up with the second and third installments of Gary Hustwit’s “Design Trilogy,” Objectified and Urbanized. I recall that when the first film, Helvetica, hit Netflix Instant, viewers with little to no prior interest in the subject matter were eating it up and recommending it to others who wouldn’t normally think to watch a doc about the titular typeface. My brother, a professional graphic designer and definite geek for typography, was an obvious fan, and at first I wasn’t sure about his assurance to me that I’d love it too. I think it was seeing people on screen with a certain love for the subject of graphic design that held my interest. Subsequently seeing someone obsessively talking at length on the design of an Apple keyboard or enthusiastically discussing progressive ideas in city planning in Objectified and Urbanized, respectively, hooked me in in spite of my own passions for these things.
Because of its beautiful shots of metropolitan centers around the world, Urbanized reminded me of the romantic genre of documentary known as the city symphony film. Examples include Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Charles Steeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta, but you can think of the opening of Woody Allen’s Manhattan as a close cousin if you’re not familiar with these classics. While not always the case, I suppose, city symphony films are often notable for being “love letters” to their subjects. This is relative to how we think of certain fictional films by Allen, Scorsese, Wenders and others as being like love letters to the cities they’re set in. City symphony films are just void of plots taking place within their settings.
Many other kinds of documentaries, from the biographical to the nature film to Frederick Wiseman’s new film about a popular Parisian nude cabaret (Crazy Horse), can be considered love letters from their makers to their subjects. I don’t know why I haven’t really thought about this Valentine quality of nonfiction cinema before, but between the doc as love letter and the doc as full of passionate personalities I’m presently excited about the amorous side of the documentary mode. I guess I take this stuff for granted for the same reason I often focus on the negative sides of everything. Unfortunately the bad things in life too easily dominate our attention and so I tend to concentrate a lot on films that are antagonistic, whether they be politically against something or simply focused on things that need to change.
So this Valentine’s Day, forget going out to see some cheesy romantic comedy with your significant other or, if you’re single, avoiding films dealing in love and passion altogether. Open yourself up to the romances that don’t involve the obvious human-to-human affections and relationships. Check out any number of documentaries presently in theaters or new to home video dealing in the love and passion and healthy obsession for such things as puppeteering (Being Elmo), teaching (American Teacher), food (El Bulli: Cooking in Progress), fashion (Ultrasuede), enigmatic street art (Resurrect Dead), architecture/urban design (Eames: The Architect and the Painter; How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?; The Pruitt-Igoe Myth; Urbanized), dance (Pina; Crazy Horse), outer space (Man on a Mission; Nostalgia for the Light), parenting (The Other F Word), peace in the city streets (The Interrupters; Superheroes), the Koran (Koran by Heart), ugly dogs (Worst in Show) and legendary performers (Sing Your Song; Carol Channing: Larger Than Life). And of course this being a movie blog, I’m sure you all can relate to passionate docs about cinema, such as These Amazing Shadows, Great Directors, Woody Allen: A Documentary and A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.
If those titles mentioned above aren’t enough for you documentary lovers, there are more great docs coming to cinemas and home video in the next couple of weeks. First, there’s Re:Generation in theaters for two nights only, on February 16 and 23 (the film will also play SXSW in March). Yes, the doc is centered around a sort of gimmick, but many nonfiction films are, and never mind that like many behind-the-scenes looks at the recording process this doc also functions as a long-form advertisement for the tracks we see created. It’s a really great looking doc, possibly due to its high production value provided by sponsors like the Grammys and Hyundai, and as I stated above it’s such a celebration of passionate artists and fans that you can’t help be intrigued and delighted by the people on screen, and it’s also a fun way of thinking about music genres and history and the places American music comes from, temporally and physically, and where it's been going.
Also opening next week, on the 17th, is the last of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary features to hit theaters: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated, a work constantly described as being like a nonfiction version of Friday Night Lights. It’s an underdog-centered sports doc that will appeal most obviously to football fans (currently experiencing a post-Super Bowl void, I’m sure) but is also very accessible to viewers with little interest in the game whether because of that similar relatability of passionate characters or because of the other topics it gets into, such as poverty and race, or because of its inspiring and crowd-pleasing emotionality. If nothing else, though, surely you’re curious about it since it’s up for the Academy Award.
Oh, and speaking of the Academy Awards, in select theaters starting this Friday is the annual program of Oscar-nominated short documentaries, which includes four out of five of the nominees (Saving Face; The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom; The Barber of Birmingham and Incident in New Baghdad) -- unfortunately God is the Bigger Elvis will not be shown, but it will air on HBO in April.
As for home video releases, Urbanized is definitely recommended, particularly if you can watch the entire “Design Trilogy” in marathon form and experience the terrific way Hustwit expands the scope and subject matter with each film so that by the third film he’s on a large scale not only in dealing with more global locations but also in the broad concepts of community and the grand issues of poverty, hunger, climate change, congestion, public safety, racial relations and of course post-Katrina New Orleans as they all relate to how urban spaces are designed and constructed. That hits DVD and Blu-ray on February 14.
Other must-rent films you’re probably more aware of that hit home video on Valentine’s Day include The Interrupters (review), Woody Allen: A Documentary (review), How to Die in Oregon (review) and Elevate (review). I recommend them all regardless of your immediate interest in their subjects.
There’s also the best film of 2011, Project Nim (review), which hit DVD this week. It might be difficult to spot in the video stores with its scary new cover art, reminiscent of the horror film Link, but seek it out and buy it and watch it over and over and over again. I think it’s becoming a desert island movie for me.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.