Sundance 2012: Those Lusterless Celebrity Documentaries

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I’m always leery about documentaries made by celebrities. I’m not talking about people who are celebrities because of the docs — the Moores, Burnses and scant others who have name recognition because of their work — but rather the famous who jump in seemingly out of nowhere to make documentary films.

With Sundance 2012 bringing us the premiere this week of Ice-T’s Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, and Rory Kennedy’s documentary about her also not un-famous mother Ethel,  I find myself with that vaguely sickening feeling that celebrities make documentaries because they are burnishing self-image, protecting or enhancing their brand, or sometimes doing a salvage job. Think Al Gore. Or Exit Through Gift Shop, 2010 Sundance pick that a) may not have been factually accurate, and b) did more to build the artist Banksy’s brand than all of his previous work, but, most terribly, c) probably inspired a string of maybe-not-so-true-true-story docs.

Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

Ice-T's Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap


Sundance has always been a strange marriage, combining Robert Redford’s star power with a love of the independent and obscure doing good work. Sundance programmers could argue that the decision to screen celebrity docs is part of its diversification, with stars bringing one kind of attention, while the festival legitimately launches the careers of a handful of lesser-known (and more worthy) filmmakers. Buzz, it would seem, is the tide upon which all boats rise.

Documentary is likewise a marriage between art and something akin to the journalistic. But, and maybe it’s because of my own background in journalism, I lean toward the work of people who don’t make films about themselves, who explore a topic of consequence and who stay behind the camera.

I realize the horse left the barn two decades ago in the substantial form of Michael Moore. Seeing a filmmaker squarely in the frame was not new when Moore first appeared in Roger & Me, but it had never been done so successfully.  While that begat people like Morgan Spurlock vomiting McDonald’s out his car window, it also brought the curious Sketches of Frank Gehry, in which the famous architect was profiled by his famous friend, Sydney Pollack. The shots of the longtime feature-film director Pollack (a man with armies of film crews at his beck and call) shooting Gehry handheld, while himself being shot by a presumed film crew, stay with me.

Too many celebrity documentaries are marked by the filmmaker spending more time in front of the camera than behind it, rarely asking very involved questions, instead offering their mediations on a topic, and at times emitting a whiff of rank self-promotion. When I hear of Johnny Depp making a documentary about Keith Richards, I don’t expect any closure on questions left unanswered by Richards’ own generally forthcoming autobiography (although Keith may well repeat his assertions about Mick Jagger’s genitalia).

Beware documentaries that try too nakedly to lure star power. Tabloid fixture Lindsay Lohan signed on for a 2010 BBC documentary on child trafficking, delicately entitled Lindsay Lohan’s Indian Journey, a film that was pitched as Lohan “investigating” the topic. Who could take it seriously? The film was greeted with shock, and disastrous ratings. Lohan, apparently unscathed, was back partying in LA in no time.

Chris Rock's Good Hair

Poster from Chris Rock's Good Hair


Celebrity docs may have hit their most egregious with the comedian Chris Rock’s Good Hair. Rock invited documentarian Regina Kimbell to screen her film about African-American hairstyles, My Nappy Roots. Some time later he came forward with his own documentary, not only on the same topic, but also sharing many elements with Kimbell’s film. She lost a lawsuit against him, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have every right to see his effort as piggybacking on hers. The comparison between the films is, to me, chilling.

Second on my list may be William Shatner’s The Captains, a documentary about playing the captain on TV’s “Star Trek.” The New York Times‘ Mike Hale’s dutiful review of the film is far better than the film itself: “Much of the fun of watching The Captains is waiting to see just how shameless a huckster and self-promoter Mr. Shatner can be. You don’t have to wait long.”

Taking the bronze is a yet-to-be-completed Juliette Lewis documentary, which makes the podium based simply on headlines from September like this one: “Juliette Lewis preps rock documentary on herself.” Exactly! But the articles back in September say she was aiming this film at Sundance 2012, something that has not come to pass, for good or for ill.

And a dishonorable mention must be made for the Casey Affleck-Joaquin Phoenix disaster I’m Still Here, which they first said was true, until it got an awful response, and then they said wasn’t true. When the nonfiction part begins to fade from nonfiction film, I am given pause.

Documentary film has given stars, who might have spent their time trying to get attention in other ways, a new avenue. No one says documentaries have to be completely objective, but can Ethel do anything but forward the Kennedy legacy? Will Something from Nothing, with its roadmap title, tell anything but rags-to-riches stories that positions rap, and rappers, in a favorable light? Maybe we’ll be surprised.

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Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.
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    You’re right that sometimes it can be self indulgent. But on the other end of the spectrum too many good docs remain in the dark because they don’t utilize star power or effective marketing. Al Gore may have become a ham after his doc but he did get the message out to a lot more people than would have been the case if he were unknown. 

    I don’t know if you can actually call Shatner’s piece a “documentary”.