Is it just me or has there been a lot of great documentaries popping up all over television as of late? I have been glued to my TV watching all the thrills, chills, aha moments, and scares, that some of these documentaries bring to the table. Here’s a handy guide to help you figure out which ones to watch.
Free Solo (Hulu)
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to climb up a gigantic wall with no ropes attached to your body, nothing to save you from dropping 7-thousand feet to your death? No, neither have I, but what fun it was to watch professional rock climber Alex Honnold try to conquer this death-defying feat in the film that won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar award for 2019. What sets this movie apart from so many other documentaries that are out there and that have come before is that we are not only shown images of how terrifying this feat can be, but we learn who he is as a person and what drives him to climb in this manner.
Honnold’s obsession with climbing is extreme, so much that he lives out of a van and is willing to sacrifice it all to conquer the wall. Many have tried to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan before him, but none have been able to without the usage of ropes. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vaserhelyi, will literally have you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails in suspense, and is a great escape into a world that most of us know nothing about at all. The images are beautifully shot, and we feel as though we are teetering on the wall next to Honnold the whole time. I highly recommend this film, even to those who are not fans of extreme sports (like myself).
The Dawn Wall (Netflix)
As if the film Free Solo wasn’t enough, Netflix released their own rock-climbing documentary as well. In the film, The Dawn Wall, directed by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer, we get a look into the life of Tommy Caldwell, who by the way is also in Honnold’s film and who helped pave the way for him, and his own journey into trying to climb the Dawn portion of the El Capitan wall. In watching both films, I started to see some similarities in these daredevil men, they have no fear for what is in front of them and are willing to put their personal lives on hold in order to achieve their dreams. Their focus and determination are palpable and it even motivated me to want to achieve something huge in my own life. Caldwell is a gentle soul with a tough as nails personality and drive. His life has been so different and interesting, he started climbing as a child, just let that sink in, imagine a 6-year-old climbing treacherous mountain sides, and at one point was even held hostage by rebels in Kyrgyzstan. Along with his partner Kevin Jorgenson, we see them scale and live on the wall for days and accomplish a spectacular feat that is worth watching.
The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO)
For the past few years, I had been hearing about Elizabeth Holmes, the Silicon Valley giant who invented a new way to draw blood and extract over 200 types of medical results from just a minuscule amount. Instead of the usual vials and vials of blood most people have to give, her new device, the Edison would allow blood to be drawn from just the fingertip of a person. Her invention and idea went viral (no pun intended) and she became one of the most sought-after women in the world. Her ideas were impressive, considering she was only 19 when she dropped out of Stanford to launch her invention and company named Theranos. She was able to draw in millions of dollars from investors, give Ted talks around the world, and was featured on numerous magazines covers from Forbes to Fortune, just to name a few. In HBO’s new film, directed by Alex Gibney, we find out how her house of cards came tumbling down and how she deceived people into believing that this product could even work.
Her company was a sham, not a Ponzi scheme, but something that couldn’t be created, and she knew it, but let it happen. She gave people hope and didn’t care that her inaccurate lab results could cause diseases to spread rampantly or cause someone to not get properly diagnosed. I found this fascinating and brilliant and shows how people do judge a book by its cover, as a young, white, blond, seemingly innocent woman, she so easily convinced and deceived millions of people. They took her word for it, and believed her credibility, but in reality, she was a non-blinking strange woman who in a sense has no ethics and a very low moral capability of taking ownership for the lies she told. One of my faves from this list and a high recommendation.
As a fan of Quincy Jones and his work, I found this film to be enthralling, as we finally get a view into his life. Directed by his own daughter, Rashida Jones, along with Alan Hicks, we see a glimpse into his life and the musical genius of how his brain works. It was interesting to see how he came up with ideas for so many famous songs and entertainers and how ultimately, he turned Michael Jackson into an even bigger star. Jones has always had an eye for talent and now as an older person, we see that he still has the drive to help others with their music. He suffered many debilitating bouts of exhaustion and complications from diabetes, but his will and determination to keep going is never stopped. His life has been remarkable, and his legacy will continue to be withstanding for ages to come. What impressed me the most about this film, is that we get to see his work ethic, and how relentless he is to keep working and succeeding with his music. He is awe inspiring and a legend to say the least. If you are a fan of music, then this is one to watch.
Studio 54 (Netflix)
New York City’s Studio 54 was an iconic dance club that launched the disco scene into the world. There have been numerous articles written, movies made, and other documentaries that tell the tale of Studio 54’s rise and demise, but this one offers something different. In this version, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, we get to hear from the man who co-built it himself, Ian Schrager. Hearing him tell the stories and show the pictures from his life and how he created the club with Steve Rubell, gave the film a sense of authority. We tend to believe what we are seeing and hearing if it is coming straight from the person who was there. The club had so many iconic moments, along with strange rumors, that many were almost unbelievable, but Schrager tells us what really went down in those pivotal years of its run. I found the stories fascinating and exciting to watch, one can only imagine what it must have been like to be inside. Utilizing photographs from the time period and video clips, we get a sense of what it was like to be inside. We get a sense that if you were unique and different and maybe someone who didn’t fit in with mainstream society at the time, then you were probably let inside to rub elbows with Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, and Elton John to name a few. After watching this film, I wondered if Rubell would have ever let me into his club, looking down at my non-extravagant pajamas, my guess is probably not.
Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)
The words “weird” and “wtf” came out of my mouth so many times while watching this documentary that I just had to mention this one. The film by Skye Borgman, details how 12-year-old Jan Borgman, was abducted by the family friend and neighbor, Robert ‘B’ Berchtold. This man befriended the family and went to extreme lengths to be with Jan, as he believed he was in love with her. He seduced her to the point where she believed she was in love with him as well. What makes this even more strange is how both her mother and father allowed him into their own personal lives. There were so many moments in the film, from alien abductions to gay trysts, where you think to yourself “What the hell is going on here and is this actually real”? I could not believe my eyes and this film will leave you reeling and wondering how a family could have allowed this to happen to their young child.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (HBO)
As a child of the 80’s, I grew up watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and fondly remember him tying his iconic shoes, and inviting us into his cozy, little world. One that felt calm and happy, never a bad thought in sight. To most children, adults come off as brash and bossy, but with Mr. Rogers, you felt comforted and cared for, all from the proximity of the television screen. As a teenager, I would come home from school, way too old to be watching his show, but nonetheless I would put on PBS and let it play in the background. He blocked off the harsh realities of teenage life and quelled the anxieties that were running rampant in my head. His voice was comforting and familiar and just what I needed at the time. In the documentary, we get the history of who Fred Rogers was as a person, and what drove him to start what was originally seen as a somewhat outlandish TV show. One aimed at kids with quirky puppets and a make-believe world which encompassed an array of various characters from King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchild, to Daniel the Striped Tiger.
This film directed by Morgan Neville, pays homage to a man who revolutionized the television industry and inspired generations of people to be their best and showed them how to enrich their lives by simply being kind and understanding of others. Something that is missing from the cacophony of television shows that are on today. His show touched on everything from racism, bullying, to being disabled, to say that he was a trailblazer is an understatement.
What I found the most interesting is that we get a sense of who Mr. Rogers was as a person. Did you ever see your 6th grade teacher out at a grocery store? It almost felt unreal to see that they had normal lives. I felt the same way watching this film. In a sense I never knew anything about his home life and who he was as a person, just the character he portrayed on TV. We learn about his family and how he was as a father and a husband. There are even testimonials of people who worked with him, and they talked about what a funny and normal guy he was on set. The film normalized Mr. Rogers from an almost fictional character to a real person. Highly recommend it and a good primer to watch before this year’s theatrical release of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as the enigmatic man himself.
Generation Wealth (Amazon)
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (Netflix)
Finding Neverland (HBO)
Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists (HBO)
Fyre Fraud (Hulu)