Documentaries have been mired in biopics for quite a while, so much so that anyone who ever did much of anything has probably had a film made about them.
Sometimes these films are interesting, fascinating even, but other times they’re simply a hagiographic muddle, or worse, exploitive and gross. Thankfully, this year there’s been a bounty of well-balanced films about the life and times of famous — and not-so-famous — folks.
Let’s start with one of the best: The Velvet Underground. Director Todd Haynes’s portrait of the influential U.S. rock band is a welcome change from more staid fare. If ever a more experimental approach was needed in a music documentary, it is this one and this band.
The Velvet Underground exploded like a supernova in 1960s American culture. As composer and music producer Brian Eno once apocryphally said, their first record may have only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought a copy started their own band.
The biggest fanboy was Jonathan Richman, lead singer of the Modern Lovers, who on their first album in the ’70s aped the Velvet Underground slavishly.
In the film, Richman is a fresh-faced teenage geek, hanging out at the Velvet Underground shows, absorbing through osmosis not only the music, but the entire vibe. Still goggle-eyed with wonder so many years later, Richman is all of us, the large swath of folks who are mesmerized by the sound they made.
As the film shows, the Velvet Underground was one of those cosmic accidents of fate when all the stars aligned. Everyone was in the exact right place at the exact right moment: Lou Reed, John Cale, Mo Tucker and Sterling Morrison. Add in Andy Warhol and German chanteuse Nico, and history is made.
Haynes takes a montage approach, layering images and interviews, archival footage and stills with the band’s infamous drone, seemingly always in the background, acting upon us in arcane and mysterious fashion.
Much like the Velvet Underground’s music, this doc is dense — wadded full of different stories of the individual band members as well as flavours of the era itself: the rotten and raunchy New York City of old, with its dirt-cheap apartments, freaky people and exploding experimental art scene. The overall effect is cumulative, elegiac and ridiculously thrilling.
From the car crash screech of Cale’s viola that opens the film, to its final interview clip with a grimy Reed dourly chatting with Warhol, it’s a rock ’n’ roll call of the dark, the fabulous, the deranged, the majestic. To borrow Richman’s words, “Rock ’n’ roll but not like the rest. And to me, America at its best. How in the world were they making that sound? Velvet Underground.”
To continue in the tone of singular American greatness, I give you Pauli Murray.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard of Murray before I watched Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s excellent documentary My Name Is Pauli Murray. Murray, as the film notes, was a person so far ahead of their time that she packed about 10 different lives into one — lawyer, activist, writer, priest and saint. (After her death in 1985, Murray was named a saint by the Episcopal Church in 2012).
The New Yorker’s 2017 profile of Murray hit the proverbial nail on the head with a subtitle that asked, “She was an architect of the civil-rights struggle — and the women’s movement. Why haven’t you heard of her?”
The film sets out to answer this question, and in doing so, uncovers the ways in which folks like Murray are often left out of history. Black, non-binary, brilliant and cussedly determined to live life without bending to anyone’s rules, Murray’s ferocious determination to be true to herself partly explains this erasure.
In redressing this, the film gives Murray due recognition, but it goes further in elucidating the struggles that she fought against both then and now — racism, sexism, homophobia — and examining how far things have come and how much further they have to go. Many of the liberties that Murray fought hard for decades ago are being systematically rolled back in the U.S., with voting rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ2S(IA)+ rights all under attack.
Long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in 1955, Murray and a friend had done almost exactly the same thing 15 years earlier when they were asked to move to the back of the bus while on a trip to Virginia. Murray’s pioneering work in social justice formed the basis of many of the most important legal precedents in U.S. history, but throughout her life, she rarely received proper credit.
One example of this was the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education, which effectively ended Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation. The legal argument, founded upon a paper that Murray had written while still in law school, was taken and used, but her work was never credited.
One of the few people to give her credit was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who cited Murray as a co-author in her 1971 Reed vs. Reed case that argued discrimination on the basis of sex was unconstitutional.
Cohen and West had stumbled across this fact while working on RBG, their previous film that chronicles the career of Ginsberg, who served as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1993 to 2020. At the time, neither had ever heard of Murray before, but the more they researched, the more unbelievable stories they uncovered.
The most important idea that My Name Is Pauli Murray offers is that one person can make a huge impact on the world through courage, fortitude and never running from a fight when the cause is just. Throughout her highly eventful life, Murray never ran and stood her ground, demanding recognition and respect not only for herself, but for all marginalized people.
Another documentary that examines how a single person can change the world comes from this same filmmaking team who seem to have cornered the market on films about extraordinary women.
Cohen and West’s Julia is as big-hearted and generous as its legendary subject, culinary icon Julia Child. Filled with lashings of butter, cream and good fun, this is not a film to be watched on an empty stomach. You might find yourself desperately booking a flight to Paris in order to savour sole meunière, the dish that inspired Child’s cooking career.
One of the first superstar chefs, Child’s life was as rich and rollicking as her gastronomic style. After suffering through fictive interpretations of the woman (Meryl Streep... blergh), it’s a pleasure to see the actual person in all her oddity and uniqueness in Cohen and West’s treatment. Their documentary is a love story from beginning to end, though it doesn’t shy away from Child’s flintier side. She was an astute businesswoman and not above shoving other women — including old friends and colleagues — out of the way in order to be more fully in the spotlight.
A relative late bloomer, Child came to worldwide fame almost by accident. During an interview about her cookbook on a local public television station, she asked for a hotplate to be brought in so that she could liven things up by making an omelette. Almost immediately, the phone lines exploded and lo, a star was born.
Organized around the major events of her life — marriage, introduction to French cuisine, collaborating on a book and finally, global fame — the film’s narrative gallops along almost as breathlessly as Child’s inimitable vocal style, which always sounded like she was running uphill at the same time as she was cooking a goose.
An effortlessly charming love letter to a true American classic, Julia is a film to be relished.
Amongst the films about famous folks, one of the most powerful documentaries this year was about largely unknown people working on the frontlines of the global pandemic.
The First Wave ought to be mandatory viewing for anyone still pooh-poohing the pandemic. Filmed over the course of the first few months of COVID-19’s onslaught in New York, it is harrowing and heartbreaking in equal measure.
Director Matthew Heineman populates his film with extraordinary characters, including doctors, nurses and physical therapists, but the patients provide the most harrowing scenes. The footage is intimate to the point of being painful as it charts the struggle back to health for the people who survived. So many did not. The film does not avoid the grimness of dead bodies in refrigerated trucks, but looks at it full on, laying out the practical realities of dealing with death on such as mass scale.
It’s yet another reminder of what frontline staff faced and continue to face as the pandemic keeps on keeping on, from dealing with grieving families, to making sense of a system that uses death as a political tool. Although the former U.S. president is never directly mentioned in the film, his bloated shadow hangs heavy over the mounting body count.
With such darkness, the victories that do come are deeply celebrated. When a patient who has twice been placed on a ventilator is finally well enough to go home to his young family, it feels like an incandescent triumph.
Happy holidays, readers. Our comment threads will be closed until Jan. 3 to give our moderators a break. See you in 2022!