The celebrity-driven nonfiction film has become an unwelcome mainstray of the documentary form recently. Not only is Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) directing commercials for none other than public persona #1 Barack Obama, but a whole slew of pop-docs are premiering at the Tribeca Film Fesival next month, with new films on Joseph Papp, musicians such as Queen and Tony Bennett, and sports figures such as the Red Sox’s Tim Wakefield and the Met’s R.A. Dickey. There’s also star-studded docs on digital cinema (“Side by Side,” featuring James Cameron, David Fincher, George Lucas, etc) and Morgan Spurlock’s latest “Mansome” (with interviews with Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, etc). And do I care? Not really.
Tribeca has premiered its fair share of important docs, from “Jesus Camp” to “Taxi to the Dark Side.” But it’s also increasingly become a home for hagiographies and celebrity profiles, with films on famous designers (Halston) and famous musicians (Elton John) and figures (Joan Rivers). While I’m sure there’s place for these name-driven docs, and the star status of their subjects drive a certain amount of ticket sales, by and large, the films don’t interest me.
Granted, I have stayed away from many of them, so perhaps I can’t accurately judge this tendency in documentary filmmaking, but it seems to me that there is a general lack of complexity in the work. After all, how much can you paint a shaded portrait of a celebrity who probably has some control over the subject matter, and doesn’t want to be shown in a negative, or ambiguous, light?
At Sundance, I thought Joe Berlinger’s Paul Simon documentary “Under African Skies” largely avoided the pitfalls of the celebrity doc, showing some of the problems with Simon’s South African visit during the Apartheid years, but then again, the movie also suffered from it, and would have been far more complex and interesting, I suspect, if Simon wasn’t so actively involved. The problem is that celebrities are celebrities for a reason, they’re charismatic and persuasive and have a great screen presence, which makes them natural documentary subjects. (Look, some of the greatest docs ever — “Don’t Look Back,” “Gimme Shelter,” for instance, focus on pop stars.) But it’s necessary to inject any strong film with a level of ambiguity that is often lacking in these films.
Unlike the Premiere and Spotlight sections at fests, the competition slates at Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca are rife with documentary films that have not a single famous name in them. Perhaps that is where we should focus our attention.