Celebrity profiles are the common potato of modern media: calorie dense and nutrition poor, from Esquire cover stories to entertainment show sound bites to cable channel one-offs, they can be dressed many ways but wind up tasting more or less the same. Raised on a celebrity-centric diet, we wolf these profiles down as a staple, a reliable filler of a vaguely defined hunger. Eat enough under-seasoned potato flake mashies, though, and a well-roasted red jacket takes on the proportions of a delicacy.
Last month’s announcement that Spike Lee has directed a documentary about the life of Michael Jackson (to premiere at the Venice Film Festival this summer) got me thinking about the rare classics of the genre. The following is a list of documentary profiles that balance incisive portraiture of a singular performer with an examination of the role performance plays in a restless, icon-starved culture.
Madonna: Truth or Dare (dir. Alex Keshishian)
The definitive portrait of one of the last century’s most incandescent performers and the last of the big personalities, Madonna: Truth or Dare captures a very specific moment in a career and a zeitgeist. Performances recorded during her 1990/91 “Blond Ambition” tour are interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage of the pop star mothering her dancers, emasculating her boyfriend (Warren Beatty), navigating her deadbeat brother’s antics, visiting her mother’s grave, and patronising a childhood friend in her native Detroit. Madonna gave Keshishian nearly unlimited access, and the result is most compelling not for opening an “intimate” window on the “real” Madonna but when one mask is removed only to reveal another.
Don’t Look Back (dir. D.A. Pennebaker)
Did I say definitive just now? If Keshishian nailed Madonna (hey now!), D.A. Pennebaker originated a blueprint for the form when Don’t Look Back was released in 1967. Using cinéma vérité techniques, Pennebaker followed a young Bob Dylan as he toured the UK, ignored Joan Baez, schooled Donovan, and threw his puny weight around in various hotel rooms. If it doesn’t sound like much, you haven’t seen the movie, which revealed less about its doggedly enigmatic subject (a considerable amount) than about the Borgesian sandstorm that surrounded him at the peak of his success and the birth of the modern-day rock star.
Marlene (dir. Maximilian Schell)
Marlene Dietrich’s Judgment at Nuremberg director Maximilian Schell had been asking the actress for years to participate in a documentary about her life. Having lived largely in seclusion after retiring, in 1982 she relented, but only on condition that she not be photographed (at that time she was 81; she died in 1992). That condition alone—Dietrich was a storied beauty and one of the first great movie stars—suggests the extent of her commitment to the persona she created on screen. More easily ascribed to simple vanity, her shadowy presence in this unique reflection on her career feels is confirmation of how deeply Dietrich believed in her role as ambassador from the first great age of illusion.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (dir. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg)
Comedy’s trailblazing survivor gets the documentary treatment she deserves from Stern and Sundberg, who peel back Rivers’s showbiz veneer to reveal the relentless, hoofing ambition driving her. It’s also something of a restorative effort: For those who only know Joan as the bitchy sheriff of the red carpet or the purveyor of jewelry and schmaltzy cable biopics, Piece of Work is an eye-opening correction. Thoroughly modern (no one works harder or lives better; the look into her Versailles-styled apartment alone is worth it) and yet fascinatingly of her time (for a maverick, she has some pretty square ideas about how women should look and act), she is also a relentless student of comedy. For all of its perks, here the performing life is not an object of envy; if Rivers doesn’t exactly make it look easy, it’s clear that she never really had a choice.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (dir. Rodman Flender)
As well as the year that followed Conan O’Brien’s abrupt departure from his dream gig hosting the Tonight Show, the indomitable, inflatable, insufferable show business ego is the subject of Flender’s first documentary. Like several on this list, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop makes you wonder how much flak its subject took from his army of agents and managers for allowing the kind of access its director enjoyed. Flanders pulls back on O’Brien’s sharp-tongued but congenial comic persona to reveal its dark and unsavory edges. It’s riveting viewing, and for Conan fans in particular disillusioning in the best, most fascinating way.
Ciao! Manhattan (dirs. John Palmer and David Weisman)
Technically not billed as a documentary, Ciao! Manhattan is at least the last document of Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, by 1970 burnt out and moldering in her parent’s California home. As tough as it can be to watch (Sedgwick appears bleary, high, and topless for much of the film), it’s also an essential piece in the puzzle of pseudo-documentaries Andy Warhol’s “factory” turned out in the mid-60s. Those short films—of Sedgwick endlessly primping in Poor Little Rich Girl or being groped and interrogated in Beauty No, 2—made a star out of a damaged socialite and introduced the era of “famously famous” performers we’re stuck with now. Ciao! Manhattan, made shortly before Sedgwick’s death, is a grim post-script to that kind of performing life. Sedgwick’s rambling about her exploitation and glory days just four years earlier are as damning as they are haunting.
Mailer on Mailer (American Masters, PBS) and Mailer For Mayor (dir. Murray N. Rothbard)
In 2001 PBS’s “American Master” series diverged from their usual, more typical documentary format to profile writer Norman Mailer. For much of its ninety minutes Norman Mailer, then in his late seventies, addresses the camera directly, reflecting on his life and work. As playful and provocative as he is eloquent and introspective, Mailer is the rare subject (and certainly the rare writer) who rewards this kind of treatment; the world was his stage and he inhabits it here as a matter of course. From certain angles he’s a one-man microcosm of the twentieth century, from his participation in World War II (the subject of his first, breakthrough novel, The Naked and the Dead) to his stature during the last great literary era, to his position of ignominy with regard to the women’s movement, to his involvement in the new journalism movement and many political causes. Related to the latter is Mailer for Mailer, a brief but evocative chronicle of Mailer’s 1969 run for mayor of New York City.
Shut Up and Play the Hits (dir. Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace)
This recent chronicle of the final show played by dance-punk favorites LCD Soundsystem offers a look at one of music’s more idiosyncratic talents—frontman and founder James Murphy—and tells the increasingly rare story of somewhat accidental success in the music business. A pre-emptive strike against obscurity, the band’s early retirement is occasion for discussion of what it means to be a semi-cult smash in the age of struggling music labels and micro-audiences, which is to say at a time when stepping back from the constant call for more and new content is to ensure both limited success and a decent shot at a long-term legacy.
Charlotte Rampling: The Look (dir. Angelina Maccarone)
This idiosyncratic 2011 interview portrait of English actress Charlotte Rampling doesn’t attempt to penetrate her famous enigma. Instead director Angelina Maccarone frames and re-frames it from different angles, giving Rampling the opportunity to speak on the big subjects—sub-sections are titled, “Exposure” “Desire,” “Aging,” and “Death”—revealing herself in sidelong glimpses. Rampling hangs out with some of her artist friends and collaborators (including author Paul Auster), and their conversations set an infamously forbidding personality into yet another relief.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (dir. Matthew Akers)
Silent throughout her three-month residency in New York’s Museum of the Modern Art, performance artist Marina Abramovic gave Matthew Akers “backstage” access to her show. Known throughout a four-decade career for her provocative, real-time, largely silent pieces, The Artist is Present shows Abramovic as an artist, as she herself puts it, “at the top of career,” yet still seeking all the usual things: meaning, respect, companionship, sex. The triumphs and the loneliness of a life lived in some sense through her audience add an unusual pathos to an even more unusual success story.
About this writer
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