I love summer movies with their crashes, chases, explosions, superheroes, and sequels as much as anyone, but after a while they all run together. But good documentaries are unforgettable. There is something about real-life characters inviting us into their lives as they pursue their dreams and passions that is electrifying. You sit down in the theater, wondering how you could ever become emotionally invested in a story abut spelling or Donkey Kong or pastry or jump rope or high school basketball and ten minutes later you are completely enthralled. I’ve seen an extraordinary group of documentaries in the last couple of weeks on subjects from hip-hop to gospel to a teen poetry slam to Irish dancing, from a horse whisperer to a once-dominant, still monumentally influential business struggling to stay alive. All take us to worlds that are in one way completely strange, even bizarre, and yet in a much more profound way they all take us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our own world. And all are highly recommended.
“Jig” Director Sue Bourne says she likes to find “the extraordinary in the ordinary” and she succeeds in taking us to the world championships of Irish dancing. Family and friends range from bewildered to enthusiastic — often both, as competitors dedicate their lives to the intricate steps of an ancient discipline. Watch the body language of the mothers as they watch their daughters, not even aware of the way their chins and shoulders move slightly along with the dancers, and the faces of the dancers as the maddeningly complicated scores are announced and everything tries to figure out how they add up. The characters are unforgettable, especially the two top 10-year olds, who demonstrate not only more talent, dedication, and competitive spirit than the adults, but more dignity, grace, and class as well. I predict one of them will grow up to be a star performer. The other may grow up to rule the world, and we’d be all the better for it.
“Buck” “A lot of times instead of helping people with horse problems,” says Buck Brannaman. “I help horses with people problems.” Brannaman, the inspiration for the book The Horse Whisperer and the Robert Redford movie teaches people how to teach horses through kindness and compassion, recognizing that sometimes that means that the people have to find a better understanding of themselves first. After his mother’s death, his alcoholic, abusive father made Buck and his brother into the youngest rodeo stars, performing their rope tricks in a Sugar Pops commercial. When Buck took his shirt off in PE, the coach called the sheriff, and Buck was placed with foster parents who took in 27 boys. He took what he learned from that experience about the transforming effect of kindness and knowing you have a job you can do well, and brought that to his work, to his life, and to the lives of many other people and horses.
“Life in a Day” On July 24, 2010, all over the globe, people made movies about themselves and their families and communities and sent them to award-winning directors Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) and Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”) to assemble into a mosaic portrait of our world. There are the daily routines we all share, waking, breakfast, brushing our teeth, going to work and school. There are once in a lifetime moments — a marriage proposal, a bawdy 40th anniversary celebration. A frail hospital patient is glad to be alive. A man has to say goodbye to the friend who saved his life. Costumed Comic-Con attendees, a solitary world-traveling bicyclist, a shoeshine boy, share their lives for a moment. Wrenching loss and the quotidian commonplace collide in a morning ritual for a Japanese father and son that includes a ceremony in the quiet corner of their home that holds the shrine for the wife and mother who died. This is a stunning self-portrait of human life.
“Rejoice and Shout” It’s about time that there was a loving tribute to gospel music. Of course even a 10-part minseries would just scratch the surface so there is no way to cover it all in one film but director Don McGlynn wisely opted for a little less history to make room for full-length performances by gospel greats, some not seen for decades. This is a heart-lifting joy from beginning to end.
“Louder than a Bomb” Chicago hosts the biggest teen-age poetry slam competition in the world and co-directors Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs take us inside to see high school students turn their lives, many filled with loss and hardship, into poetry that brings an audience to its feet. The students bring their passion and their stories. The poetry guides their voices to make them transcendent.
“Beats, Rhymes, and Life” Actor Michael Rapaport directs the story of the rise and fall of 90’s hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. What made it great was the differences its four members brought to the sound. What tore it apart was the differences they brought to everything else. Hot-tempered, impulsive Phife Dawg, businesslike, perfectionist Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who loves to add arcane jazz and blues tracks to the songs and the ebullient Jarobi came together for a brief moment to make music of great power and influence. But what held them together as teenagers did not work as they became successful and wanted different things. They broke up, and then tried to reunite to help Phife Dawg with his medical bills. This movie will resonate with ATCQ fans and with people who have never heard of them because it is not just about the music; it is about the people.
“Page One” A documentary crew followed the reporters and editors of the New York Times for a year and the result is a fascinating, if sometimes incoherent and frustrating look at a business, a mission, and an industry in turmoil. It’s like three movies in one. The first major Wikileaks documents are made public, inspiring one of the most telling and poignant lines in the film: “The difference between this and the Pentagon Papers is that Daniel Ellsberg needed the New York Times. Julian Assange does not.” While that turns out not to be true — it is incontrovertible that the New York Times plays an essential role in assessing and reporting on the Wikileaks data dump — it is true that there have been fundamental changes since the days when the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal demonstrated the vital role and powerful impact of newspapers. In this film we see media reporter David Carr write about a new partnership between respected if stogy CNN and “we now how to appeal to young viewers” sensationalist Vice, briefly interrupting an interview for a highly unprofessional but undeniably satisfying rebuttal when one of the arrogant Vice “journalists” dares to attack the Times. He writes about mismanagement of the Tribune Company under real estate mogul Sam Zell, the expose arguably leading to the departure of Zell’s deputy. And we follow one of the Times’ newest hires. As cuts lead to the departure of experienced, distinguished journalists, they bring on a 21-year-old whose tweets and blog posts on television news has been scooping them.
“Conan Can’t Stop” Conan O’Brien lost his dream job as host of “The Tonight Show” after only seven months. And he was not allowed to appear on television for six months under the terms of his buy-out. So of course he decided to do his first-ever live comedy show, the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television tour. It is as fascinating to see the show come together as it is to see O’Brien work through his anger, bitterness, and insecurity as he learns about comedy tours, interacts with his staff and his fans (gently correcting a teen who uses an anti-Semitic slur) and gets visits from celebrity friends. Two highlights, Jack McBrayer’s impromptu clog dance when O’Brien starts playing “dueling banjos” and Eddie Vedder’s sensational rendition of “Baba O’Riley.”