Pop open the “documentaries” section of your friendly local streaming service, and a bevy of movies about celebrities will greet you. Rockers, politicians, artists, authors, athletes — increasingly everyone you’ve heard of has a documentary, and probably served as a producer on it, too. The appeal of such films is obvious: If you like someone already, you get to hear them talk about themselves. If you know you should like someone, then you’ve got a quick introduction to set you on your way to fandom.
That’s the appeal of two documentaries released this week, “The Greatest Night in Pop” (Netflix) and “Dario Argento Panico” (Shudder). The first is a lighthearted look at the recording of “We Are the World,” full of archival footage from the actual recording in 1985 and reminiscences by figures like Bruce Springsteen and Lionel Richie. The movie sidesteps any real contemplation of the song itself or its cultural import, but if you want to hear famous people talk about a real weird night, then you won’t be disappointed. (Here’s our critic’s review.) Similarly, “Dario Argento Panico” functions best as a primer on the Italian horror master (director, most famously, of “Suspiria”), supplemented by commentary from figures like the director Guillermo del Toro; it’s not breaking any ground, but you’ll learn a thing or two. (Here’s our review.)
Watching these films got me thinking about celebrity-focused documentaries that go above and beyond the usual fare. The best of these movies tend to do more than tell us about the subject — they tell us what the subject means, in a cultural sense. Celebrities, after all, are not just people. They’re products, packaged for us to consume in some manner, and their stories say something about the world writ large.
There are plenty of examples in the history of nonfiction film, but as celebrities, and their teams of publicists and managers, have increased control over their images, it’s rarer and rarer to find a documentary that feels as if it’s more revealing than concealing. One enjoyable recent example is “Judy Blume Forever” (Prime Video), which locates the YA author’s importance in, among other things, her fearless attitude toward censorship and book banning.
One of the best recent films in this genre is “Listening to Kenny G” (Max), which weaves together interviews with the smooth jazz saxophonist and discussions with fans, haters and critics to consider what his popularity really means — and, more broadly, why we like art in the first place.
And then there’s the Oscar-winning “Summer of Soul” (Hulu, Disney+ and major platforms), a real banger of a concert film that uses archival footage and commentary not only to revisit a series of epochal Harlem concerts from 1969, but also to examine their wide-ranging importance to the story of race in America.
With these movies, you get more than a recounting of events or a person’s life — you get a broader perspective on the world around you. And that’s one of the best tasks movies like these can accomplish.