When the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope quipped that “the proper study of mankind is man [or woman],” he might well have been looking forward to the advent of personal documentaries. In tackling the story of the band Sparks for The Sparks Brothers (in theaters June 18), the always inventive filmmaker Edgar Wright found a subject worthy of his prodigious imagination. For over 50 years and after 25 albums, brothers Russell and Ron Mael (aka the band Sparks) have reinvented themselves and their sound so often and with such ingenuity that they are now admired as much for their unbridled creativity as for their music. To showcase the band’s range and character, Wright marshaled all of his filmmaking talent, bringing, as The Wrap notes, “passion and mischievousness to his first documentary. He calls Sparks ‘underrated, hugely successful, influential and overlooked at the same time,’ and uses the film not to explain those contradictions but to revel in them.”
In a very different way, Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville talked with friends and family and reviewed hundreds of hours of television to create Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (in theaters 7/16). Tracing the forces that drove this iconic chef and world traveler, Neville looks at how a man who shared so much of his life with millions of television viewers kept so much inside. With these two exceptional documentaries coming to theaters soon, we are remembering other unforgettable personal documentaries and the talented filmmakers who strove to do justice to their real-life subjects.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? | Fred Rogers
Before following a chef’s journey in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Morgan Neville explored the career of another complicated, albeit very different personality in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? To tell the story of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister-turned-television personality, Neville examined how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood spoke to multiple generations of children. “I don't want to make a film about the biography of Fred Rogers, I want to make a film about the ideas of Fred Rogers,” Neville told Rogers’ widow at the onset of production. In doing so, Neville showcases how Rogers, with his generous imagination, inspired and consoled young audiences rocked by the turbulent times of the sixties and seventies. “It is that emphasis — the earnest, critical attention to the public Mister Rogers and his legacy — that makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor? feel like such a gift,” wrote The New York Times, acknowledging “The most radical thing about him was his unwavering commitment to the value of kindness.”
The Way I See It | Pete Souza
In The Way I See It, filmmaker Dawn Porter creates a documentary double exposure. In telling the story of official White House photographer Pete Souza, she also conjures up the intimate details of his subjects, Presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. After leaving the White House in 2016, Souza moved from chronicling history to making it with an Instagram account that used his official snapshots to pointedly comment on the US presidency. “What Pete’s showing is, yes, there’s pomp and circumstance … but there’s also something really basic that’s happening, which is people doing really hard work in service of others,” explains Porter. While poignant and personal, The Way I See It uses our immediate history to think about our future, asking, as The Wire points out, “questions like how should the job of the US president be approached and what should the leader of the nation be like?"
Pope Francis – A Man of His Word | Pope Francis
In 2013, acclaimed filmmaker Wim Wenders received a letter from the Vatican humbly asking him, “Would you be interested in thinking about a movie with Pope Francis?” The surprising missive led to the German filmmaker earning unfettered access to the holy pontiff to create Pope Francis – A Man of His Word. Following the Pope on his travels around the world, Wenders witnessed the spontaneous enthusiasm and affection that Catholic audiences had for the new Pope. "I know how humble and honest and courageous a man he is,” exclaimed Wenders. “The only thing that my film wants to convey is who he is and what he's fighting for.” In detailing Francis's most simple and intimate actions, Wenders reveals his spiritual project. “Whether he’s washing the feet of prisoners in America, visiting sick children in Africa, or praying with hurricane victims in Asia, Pope Francis doesn’t merely preach empathy, responsibility, and accountability,” explains Entertainment Weekly. “He lives it.”
The Kid Stays in the Picture | Robert Evans
The difficulty in separating the man from the myth in The Kid Stays in the Picture, Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s documentary on legendary movie producer Robert Evans, led the filmmakers to leave both intact. Describing the film as “a third-person autobiography in which Bob describes his life,’ Burstein explains, “He’s such a great storyteller that we wanted to embrace that and give you a Bob Evans experience.” Reveling in stories of his life as the head of Paramount releasing classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Godfather, the producer of Chinatown and Marathon Man, the endless romantic who was married seven times, or the felon convicted of cocaine trafficking, the film shows both how legendary his life was and how Evans made it his life work to turn himself into a legend. Indeed, in addition to making movies, he made his life the stuff that movies dream of. As The Orlando Sentinel put it, “This movie is more fun than many of those tall tales that Hollywood calls feature films.”