What Makes a Documentary Special?

Last night, I finished up HBO's Four-Part documentary series, The Defiant Ones, on Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine and hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre.  With a storyline centered on the uniqueness and genius of both Dre and Iovine, Director Allen Hughes created a vision that was also completely different and unique in the documentary sector.  Camera angles were different from other documentaries I've seen. Shots were edited and spliced together in unique ways, and the story bounced back and forth between the two while never straying from the finalmission.  Overall, it's an excellent documentary that I highly recommend you check out.

It also really got me thinking about different styles of film, art, storytelling and so much more. Can you think back on some of your favorite films and documentaries throughout the years? What made them so special to you?  Did you notice the differences in styles or did the story just resonate more with you than others?  As the viewer, it is easy to get lost in the vision and watch film as it occurs on your screen.  When it's well made, you don't even notice the crazy shots mixed in with voiceovers and interviews throughout the film.  You just accept the art as it is.  It flows, it's natural, it's riveting and it guides the story along without retreating from the goal at hand.

Some of my favorite documentaries I've seen in the past few years include (in no particular order):

  1. The Defiant Ones (HBO)
  2. O.J.: Made in America (ESPN 30 for 30)
  3. Long Strange Trip (Amazon Prime)
  4. Blackfish (Netflix)
  5. J. Cole - Homecoming 2014 Forest Hills Drive (HBO)
  6. J. Cole - 4 Your Eyez Only (HBO)
  7. Searching for Sugar Man (Amazon Video, YouTube, etc.)
  8. Four Days in October (ESPN 30 for 30)
  9. The U (ESPN 30 for 30)
  10. The Two Escobars (ESPN 30 for 30)
  11. The Best That Never Was (ESPN 30 for 30)
  12. I Hate Christian Laettner (ESPN 30 for 30)
  13. Playing for the Mob (ESPN 30 for 30)
  14. Bad Boys (ESPN 30 for 30)
  15. You Don't Know Bo (ESPN 30 for 30)
  16. Phi Slamma Jamma (ESPN 30 for 30)
  17. This Magic Moment (30 for 30)
  18. Fantastic Lies (30 for 30)
  19. Trojan War (30 for 30)
  20. Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (HBO)
  21. Crossfire Hurricane (Netflix)
  22. Bowling for Columbine (Netflix)

*Most of these are available to rent or watch on YouTube as well!

My list keeps growing and growing as each day passes.  There are a lot of talented filmmakers out there and each documentary possessing it's own little flavor for the viewers to enjoy, critique and share with their family and friends.  As a filmmaker, it's always so interesting to understand the vibe these producers and directors are going for.  I can't even imagine some of the content they have to edit out of the final product.  But, as time passes, a lot of these documentaries are really getting a major revamp with the massive amount of content that they share.  Ezra Edelman's five-part epic spans over 7 hours of footage, voiceovers, narratives and more.  That's a whole lot of footage, folks!  The Defiant Ones clocks in a little over 5 hours and there are countless others out there that do the same.  

Sometimes, the story must be told in longer form, and the best filmmakers know how to master this.  It's impressive.  It's exciting.  And, really, we are living in one of the greatest era of documentary filmmaking the industry (and the masses) has ever seen.  So, you just have to dive right in!

You can also find tons of great documentaries below:

Enjoy, my fellow film lovers.