2011 Documentary Round-up: Part 1

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (9/19/2011)
When the “Late Night Wars” were going on last year my eyes were glued to the TV and the internet, fascinated by the high profile battle that was going on over NBC’s late night schedule.  That said, my interest in the conflict had more to do with my disdain for Jay Leno than it had to do with any true admiration for the comedic talents of Conan O’Brien.  O’Brien is a fun personality but a little bit of him goes a long way, and frankly I’m not that interested in watching a talk show every single night of the week.  As such I wasn’t sure how much I’d get out of this feature length documentary about the guy and given the cult like nature of “Team Coco” I had pretty good reason to fear that this would be a product that was “for fans only.”  In fact it would have been so incredibly easy for the documentarians involved to out a puff piece, a movie filled with footage from O’Brien’s tour mixed with self serving interviews about how “fun” it is to work with Conan.

Instead, what we have here is a very honest film about the “agony and ecstasy” of being an entertainer and a brilliant portrait of Conan O’Brien at a period of great frustration in his life.  The film consists almost entirely of backstage footage from his tour, actual concert footage is sparse, which is good because those shows don’t look like they’d be particularly entertaining unless you’re watching them in person.  O’Brien himself has a report with his assistants and writers that can teeter between jovial hazing and borderline cruelty.  You can tell that he’s someone who wants to make everyone laugh but who’s internally going through a lot of anger.  It reminded me about another famous documentary about a famous person on a frustrating tour: Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, but Conan O’Brien is not Bob Dylan and in this case seeing him persevere through one of his most unpleasant moments only elicits greater respect for the man.
***1/2 out of Four

Pearl Jam: Twenty (10/21/2011)
I love Pearl Jam, in fact I think they’re the living embodiment of everything that a rock and roll band is supposed to be.  This documentary, lovingly crafted by Cameron Crowe, only reaffirmed my respect for the band which is a respect that Crowe clearly also shares.  I’m am not so sure that the same will be true of people who aren’t already enamored with the band, in fact there’s probably nothing of interest here for people who don’t already at least like the band, and that’s what keeps me from fully embracing the film.  That said I really admired just how well the film was put together with tons of archival footage of the band and from related pop culture stitched throughout along with good and relatable interview footage.
*** out of Four

Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (11/3/2011)
The common complaint about Morgan Spurlock is that he makes documentaries that only prove points that should be obvious to begin with like the fact that McDonalds is not very good for you or that not everyone in the Middle East is evil.  That’s true, but it also sort of misses the point.  Spurlock is not trying to break new ground; he’s trying to present interesting information in a fun and highly accessible way.  It’s long been accepted that fiction films can be light entertainment, why not allow documentaries the same license?  This one is particularly fun because it becomes has an almost unintended and highly accessible meta element of being a movie about the making of itself.  Spurlock’s fun Michael Moore inspired stunts are as fun as ever and the fact that he’s dealing with a topic that’s not wildly serious makes them feel appropriate rather than cheap.  We also do get a brief look at the inner workings of the advertising industry, which is interesting in a much more genuine way.
*** out of Four

Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (11/16/2011)
As someone with a more than casual knowledge of Hip-Hop I was fairly familiar with A Tribe Called Quest, even if they weren’t exactly my favorite rappers in the world.  Their albums like Midnight Mauraders and The Low End Theory are indeed classics of sorts, but I don’t think they eclipse the works of other groups around that time like Eric B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, and Gang Starr.  Consequently it seemed a little strange to see the many talking heads in this documentary treat the group like it was the second coming of Mozart or something.  Of course what really matters here is the film’s exploration of the group members and their personal dynamics, and that’s interesting when it finally arrives, but too much of this documentary feels like a behind the music episode and I sort of wish director Michael Rapaport had settled down and decided whether he was going to make a career retrospective (like Pearl Jam: Twenty) or tour documentary (like Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop).  Instead he tries to do both and the results are disappointing.
**1/2 out of Four

Page One: Inside the New York Times (11/29/2011)
This documentary manages to get incredible access to the inner workings of America’s most respected news source at an important juncture in its 160 year history.  All Throughout the documentary there’s doom in the air as the internet seems poised to overtake print media as the preeminent news source and the Times is the white whale that these young turks seem to have pasted a bullseye atop.  Page One: Inside the New York Times is not exactly a paragon of documentary organization, in fact it seems like a number of different documentaries in one: it could have been a vérité work about what the newsroom is like, it could have been a profile of journalist David Carr, or it could have been a straight exploration of new media vs. old media.  It does all of these things and runs the risk of being over-crowded because of this, but it turns out that each of these mini-documentaries is so interesting that it’s hard to hold that against the film and their all woven together so well that you forgive it its overflowing ambitions.
*** out of Four

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