What Makes a Good Documentary Film?

About four months ago, I wrote a bit about The Megalist, the completely insane statistical method I use to push myself to watch awesome movies I’d never seen before. After many years of using the tool, I noticed something interesting.

The tool pulls in data from various “Best of [Genre]” lists from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. On most of these lists, the movies don’t move around much. For example, Sunset Boulevard has been in the #1 spot of IMDB’s Film Noir Top 50 for ages. The films below it shuffle around in ranking a little, but mostly they’re the same titles. This is because nobody really makes great Films Noir anymore, so nothing is going to bump White Heat from the list.

The other lists get a little more life from newer movies (i.e., Inception stormed onto some of these lists last year), but still mostly reflect the classics.

Except for the Documentaries lists, from both IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. The turnover is HUGE every time I update The Megalist. It’s nearly impossible to make headway against these lists, percentagewise, because new “OMG BEST OF ALL TIME” documentaries are charging onto the lists faster than I can watch them.

I find this fascinating.

I believe this is because most audiences have trouble separating an interesting subject from the actual crafting of a documentary film. I can’t tell you how many “OH WOW WATCH THIS AMAZING DOCUMENTARY BEST I’VE EVER SEEN !!1!11!!!” docs I’ve watched that turned out to be interesting diversions, yet were nonetheless only ordinary pieces of filmmaking.

This is where Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone comes in.

I watched Everyday Sunshine because, statistically, it had the highest point total of every unwatched film on The Megalist. I mean, according to The Megalist, Everyday Sunshine should be as earthshaking a piece of filmmaking as Rules of the Game, The Deer Hunter, or High Noon.

Well, it’s not.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Everyday Sunshine is quite good, whether or not you’re a fan of all-black punk-funk band Fishbone. The gentlemen featured in the documentary are very interesting artists, and music nerds will particularly enjoy footage of Fishbone’s electrifying stage performances. The film even touches upon the origins of the LA punk scene, and the historical reasons of why Fishbone never really hit it big.

Even as a film itself, Everyday Sunshine is pretty good. It keeps the narrative going. I never hesitates to break up talking heads shots with concert footage, photos, and even animation.

However, the film falls a little short in some places. You never get the feeling that you’re scraping under the surface of the lives of these men. You never get a clear idea of what the overall narrative really is. Laurence Fishburne’s narration sounds extraneous. The animated sequences are a mishmash of different styles. Everyday Sunshine is a quite good piece of documentary filmmaking, but not classic.

But if you look at Rotten Tomatoes, you see that the film is currently at a whopping 100%. If you look at the audience opinion screen, most of the comments boil down to “I LOVE FISHBONE!” Well, I love Fishbone, too, but that doesn’t say anything about the quality of the film itself.

Inevitably, as the film ages, the crowdsourced opinions will mellow, and a dozen new documentaries, with equally compelling subjects, will likely surge onto the Documentaries lists and push Everyday Sunshine off. And, of course, I’ll watch them all.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone is currently on Netflix Streaming. Despite my lamentations above, you should watch it… especially if you’ve never heard of Fishbone. Fishbone rules.

As long as I’m at it, I should plug a few music/arts documentaries that I think are truly amazing all around.

  • Stop Making Sense: All this film is, is a recording of a 1983 Talking Heads concert (or, rather, three concerts on consecutive nights, tied together to look like one). There are no talking heads (lower-case) or analysis or particularly fancy shots or subtitles or anything. Yet there’s something about the way Jonathan Demme and his crew tied together these shots that makes this film riveting. I often say that editing is magic, and there are few films that show this as well as Stop Making Sense. The filmmaking mastery here is so effortless that you don’t even notice it.
  • Some Kind of Monster: I don’t particularly like Metallica as a band, but I love love love this documentary. This is the film that happens when a VH1 reality TV crew happens to capture Metallica in the middle of a breakup… and then stick around for the aftermath. Somehow, this crew culled 1,600 hours of footage into a documentary that delves into the lives of aging rockers, the motivation of money, the nature of creativity, the destructiveness of drug use, and even psychology. There are as many scenes that delve deep and touch the bottom of something real as there are scenes that are outright hilarious in their absurdity. I don’t care if you like Metallica or not. This film is a gem, and you should see it.
  • Crumb: This film, about the life of underground comic artist R. Crumb and his deeply disturbed family, is one of the greatest documentaries in the world, hands down. Terry Zwigoff (director of Bad Santa and Ghost World) managed to craft a movie that makes you feel like you’re looking straight into someone’s brain. In one simple yet unforgettable scene, you can see mental illness. Brilliant filmmaking.

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