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IT’S ALWAYS THE same come-on. We’re invited into their lounge, or maybe their bedroom. The vibe is casual, intimate: undone hair, no make-up and lots of eye contact. Then at some point, usually within the first 10 minutes, this fascinating creature will lean in close and, in a whisper, confide. Something like, “I am trying to sort out the wreckage of the past.” (Robbie Williams, 2023.) Or: “Let me make you a promise: I’ll only tell you my darkest secrets.” (Selena Gomez, 2022.) Or: “As reliable as the rhythmic beating of my own heart is my need to talk to you.” (Bruce Springsteen, 2020.) And, from that point on, it’s done: you’re lost in the celebrity-documentary vortex.

It was in the spring of 2020 that I first realised I’d been sucked in. I’d become increasingly reliant on 1990s basketball analogies to communicate my every emotional state. Luckily, most of my nearest and dearest were also among the 23.8 million who’d recently binge-watched Michael Jordan’s The Last Dance docuseries on Netflix. So, as with the Chicago Bulls’ Big 3 line-up during the crucial 1993 Game 6 play-off against the Phoenix Suns, there was intuitive understanding.

Once upon a time, documentaries were admired as an oasis of integrity in showbiz’s ethical desert. In every other sector of film and television, star-power rules supreme, but the documentarian remained unbiddable and incorruptible, pointing their camera towards the human stories that really matter — war, climate change, injustice, art. On the rare occasion celebrity was a subject for documentary, it was treated with scepticism, as in Geri, Molly Dineen’s 1999 study of the former Spice Girl, in which the Bafta-winning film-maker can be heard sharply correcting Halliwell’s mistaken belief that she would have “complete control and it will be edited if there’s anything bad”. As if! Even after 2004, when Michael Moore’s Iraq War doc Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d’Or, broke box-office records and ushered in the Golden Age of documentaries, the pay remained stubbornly low and the journalistic standards resolutely high.

Cut forward only a few years, however, and documentary is as enamoured with celebrity as the most scoop-hungry paparazzo. Sit down to select your evening’s entertainment and note that seemingly every athlete, actor and musician of note has a documentary streaming, or one in the works. “I can’t tell you the amount of calls I’ve gotten from celebrities wanting to make their films since Beckham,” says Fisher Stevens, the director of Netflix’s recent hit series about the sarong-sporting football icon. Stevens has eclectic interests — previous docs have been about dolphin-hunting in Japan (The Cove), toxic relationships (Crazy Love) and anti-Trump politics (The Lincoln Project) — but it’s the celebrity films, he says with a soft chuckle, that slide most smoothly into production. “I think people are fascinated with celebrities, especially those who kind of had a moment and then are still relevant. You get to look back at those periods, the music and styles, and there’s a certain reminiscing and nostalgia… That seems to be what people are wanting.”

Stevens himself is also an actor and a recognisable face, well-known to Succession fans as Hugo, the slippery Waystar RoyCo comms exec. What’s less well-known is his real-life role in shaping the public images of high-profile figures. Prior to Beckham there was 2016’s Bright Lights, a touching portrait of the relationship between Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher and her equally stellar mother Debbie Reynolds, and Before the Flood, which helped rebrand Leonardo DiCaprio from modelising movie star to concerned environmental activist. Though, in fairness to all parties, it’s clear that was never the film’s primary intention. DiCaprio is only about the sixth-most charismatic person featured in Before the Flood, after several courageous climate scientists and a strident Indian rice farmer. He exerted his star power in a different way, says Stevens. “That was my third or fourth climate-change film and my most seen, because it had Leo.”

Since the rise of the streaming platforms, with their insatiable hunger for new content, the commercial logic behind the celeb-doc boom has only grown more stark. Non-fiction entertainment is much cheaper and quicker to produce than the scripted stuff, requiring no expensive sets, costumes or FX — and certainly no screenwriters or actors with their stroppy union demands. Yet this kind of programming can be just as popular and just as prestigious. It’s this latter attribute that gives documentary the edge over its reality-TV cousin. Selling Sunset is never going to be rewarded with an Oscar nomination, no matter how artfully Chrishell skirts the edge of a Hollywood Hills infinity pool in her six-inch Louboutins.

Still, there has to be more to it than just “here’s a famous person who has agreed to let us film”, right? Kate Townsend, Netflix’s VP for original feature documentaries and the woman responsible for green-lighting so many of these projects, hopes so. “The most important thing is that we are able to shine a light on issues beyond the individual themselves,” she says of her commissioning criteria. “We’re looking for people who have relatable challenges and complexities in their everyday lives, as well as those special qualities that make them unique […] People have been surprised by the insight these films have offered.”

For Stevens, the presence of these necessary qualities can only become apparent through forging a personal connection. “I want to make this clear about the way I make films: I don’t make them like a journalist. I’m a humanist and I’m a film-maker. I need to feel a connection or it’s just gonna suck.” And by this, he doesn’t mean hanging out and socialising — although there is a bit of that. “I mean, when I’m in a room and there are cameras on you, I need you to be just talking to me and not fucking acting and posing. I don’t want you performing.” This also allows him to ascertain the celebrity’s true reasons for wanting to open up on screen, he says. “It wasn’t until I went out to dinner with David [Beckham] and his wife that I knew… When people get to a certain point in their lives and start to be able to look back, I think it becomes therapeutic.”

There was a similar impulse behind another recent documentary series, Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story, according to its director, Gotham Chopra. “Jon and I are both big fans of the New England Patriots, and he’d seen a series I’d done on [NFL quarterback] Tom Brady. He reached out and said, ‘Hey, you know Tom’s got 20 years of success? I’ve got 40.’ Of course I was interested.”

Chopra’s resulting four-part show makes liberal use of the “Interrotron”, a favourite technique of the celeb doc, first popularised by the esteemed documentary trailblazer Errol Morris when he used it to interview the former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara for his Oscar-winning 2003 feature The Fog of War. Despite the Interrotron’s intimidating name — a jokey coinage of Mrs Morris’s — it’s really just a mirror contraption devised to give the illusion of direct audience engagement. “You create eye contact, which makes a huge difference,” explains Chopra. “If you tell a subject, ‘Answer my question, but look at the camera,’ there’s a separation and it becomes performative, versus when they’re engaging, making eye contact and having a human conversation.”

So beware: what feels like a soul-bearing connection between you and the famous person may actually just be a soul-bearing connection between the famous person and a hired camera operator. But, either way, the therapy parallel is inescapable. “That’s what it feels like, a lot,” agrees Chopra. “Many years ago, I worked with [NBA player] Kobe Bryant, and one of the things he said was, ‘This is like therapy!’” And not just a one-off taster session, either: “With Jon [Bon Jovi], the series running time is four hours, but that’s based on hours upon hours upon hours of interviews.”

In addition to all the free therapy, documentaries provide famous folks with a great new way to sideline the frequently unreliable or hostile press. Social media had already opened up that direct line of communication with the public, but in a short-form medium liable to misinterpretation. Far better a 90-minute film — or a 490-minute series — in which to detail your grievances and showcase your talents, without risk of interruption or contradiction. Fine, but what’s in it for the audience? How many of these films would pass my (recently devised) “Last Dance Test For Documentary Impact”? That is, can they take me, the indifferent viewer, and transform her into an invested and passionate subject-area expert faster than Dennis Rodman snatched up rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks in 1997?

In a recent episode of the industry podcast Doc Talk, Lois Vossen, the executive producer of the PBS documentary series Independent Lens, argued for a re-affirmation of journalistic values via a tightening up of terminology. “I don’t want to point fingers, but we take the work seriously in terms of what is a documentary as opposed to what is entertainment,” she told her fellow esteemed panellists. “There is nothing wrong with non-fiction entertainment! It is fabulous! I’ve had some of my best Friday nights watching non-fiction entertainment! The Greatest Night in Pop on Netflix [about the recording of the 1985 charity single “We Are The World”] is so much fun to watch […] But everything is now labelled ‘a documentary’. Some of it is, in fact, non-fiction entertainment.”

“In addition to free therapy, documentaries provide famous folks with a great way to sideline the unreliable or hostile press”

Yet even within these less-exacting boundaries, some celebrities — or rather, their publicity teams — seem to fundamentally misunderstand the “entertainment” bit. Take that aforementioned piece of Netflix non-fic-ent. It’s Lionel Richie who has the most screen time and the producer credit, and he collaborated with the film-makers to bring together all the big names — just as he did back in 1985. But it’s not Lionel Richie who comes out of it looking the coolest. That would be ever-the-outlaw Waylon Jennings, who walks off mid-chorus. Nor is it Lionel Richie who makes for the most compelling viewing. That would be publicity-averse Bob Dylan, shifting around uncomfortably amid all the showbiz schmoozing as if he’d rather be somewhere — anywhere — else. And neither Dylan nor the late Jennings appears as an interviewee.

Documentary royalty Ken Burns, for one, intends to hold us all to a much higher standard than mere entertainment. Back in April 2020, the two-time-Oscar-nominated film-maker responsible for such exhaustive and authoritative works as The Civil War (1990) and Country Music (2019) publicly criticised the involvement of Michael Jordan’s Jump 23 company in The Last Dance — a series ostensibly about the Chicago Bulls’ 1997–1998 NBA season, but really about Michael Jordan and what a virile, sporting demigod he is. “If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,” Burns told The Wall Street Journal. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism… and it’s certainly not the way you do good history.”

In The Last Dance’s defence, the director Jason Hehir cited the necessity for access. Clearly, without Jordan — who also held the rights to the 1997–98 season archive footage — there could be no docuseries.

But I know a man who disagrees. “It was never the plan to speak to Michael Jordan,” says Yemi Bamiro, the south-London-based director of eight documentaries, including the Chuck D-fronted Fight the Power and 2020’s One Man and His Shoes — the best film about basketball that isn’t actually about basketball. “When we were trying to get money for it, that’s all anyone would ever ask us: ‘Have you got Michael Jordan?’, ‘Have you spoken to Michael Jordan?’” Not only did Bamiro not seek out a meeting with the big man, he was actively avoiding him: “We were actually really scared that he might catch wind of the film and try to shut it down.”

Since Bamiro’s focus was not Jordan’s basketball career but his most-lucrative marketing deal — the Air Jordan trainers — he put his energy instead into securing interviews with people such as the Nike marketing exec Sonny Vaccaro and the bereaved mother of a young man murdered over a pair of Air Jordans. This meant One Man and His Shoes had to be entirely self-funded, but the indirect approach also resulted in a well-rounded, multi-faceted portrait of — if not the man himself — the wide-ranging impact of his fame and legacy. It worked so well, in fact, that a similar, Jordan-omitting story structure was later adopted by Air, the starry Hollywood drama featuring Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother and Damian Young as the back of Jordan’s head (because that’s as much of him as ever appears on screen). This time, though, the film was made with Jordan’s blessing, and several script revisions were done at his request.

Notably, Air director Ben Affleck is not afforded the same degree of privacy or autonomy in his wife Jennifer Lopez’s latest self-funded documentary, The Greatest Love Story Never Told. He appears on camera multiple times, including in one scene in which he wryly points out the otherwise unacknowledged irony of that title: “If you’re making a record about it… that seems kinda like telling it.” Yet even he of the “Depressed Ben Affleck Smoking” meme could not fail to be won over by J Lo’s exuberant self-belief eventually. Her documentaries — for there are several — make an artistic virtue of their self-financed, self-produced status. Like many other sex symbols of the 1990s and 2000s, Lopez is engaged in wrestling back control of her own narrative from male-dominated media and entertainment industries. Docs like J Lo’s and Framing Britney Spears (2021), Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream (2013) and Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana (2020) implicitly ask us to also reflect on the culture of sexism that may have gone unnoticed in the not-so-distant past.

Julia Nottingham, who has produced several films in this vein, including the timely Coleen Rooney: The Real Wagatha Story and the superlative Pamela: A Love Story, feels that trust-based collaboration is the only way to work with stars. She compares the films made by her Dorothy St Pictures company to the glossy, authorised autobiography that has pride of place in the bookshop window display. “And obviously, when you go to the autobiographies, there are ones that are ghost-written, there are ones that are actually written; there’s a whole host of them…” But wouldn’t you rather read that than the trashy, unauthorised, likely part-fanfic biography, found on a lower shelf with a reduced sticker? “We always want the most authentic version,” says Nottingham. “I’m definitely not interested in the Pamela Anderson story that’s told by commentators and full of pundits, because you don’t get the truth.” And there is a feminist subtext here, too: “Like, not to get too personal, but my mum is a divorced woman in her seventies, and watching the Pamela film boosted her confidence. It gave her a spring in her step!”

In other cases, a rigorously independent film-maker is a necessary prerequisite for any genuine reckoning with the past. Kevin Macdonald bristles at the suggestion that his recent film High & Low: John Galliano might be mistaken for “a celebrity puff piece [or] part of a campaign to rehabilitate” the disgraced fashion designer. Indeed, the documentary opens with a replay of the now-notorious 2011 footage of Galliano spewing anti-semitic abuse at strangers in a Paris bar, which remains as shocking as ever. “I thought, did they [early critics of the film] ever actually watch it? Because that’s really not what this film is.”

High & Low was funded by an independent French financier with Macdonald’s final cut written into the contract, and he commends Galliano for being amenable to this arrangement: “It was quite a long flirtation, but once he’d decided, he never brought a PR to a meeting. He never said ‘This is off-limits’. [It was] ‘You can ask anything that you want.’ When he saw the cut — which, contractually, I had to show him for factual accuracy — he made a couple of points like, ‘That’s not a couture dress, it was actually prêt-à-porter — how dare you?’, but he didn’t say a thing about anything else. And I was really amazed by that, because it’s very personal, obviously, and really impacts his life.”

Macdonald admits there was likely some ego involved in Galliano’s decision to participate. “I think part of his agenda was, ‘Well, Alexander McQueen has a really great film about him [Ian Bonhôte’s “zero-access” 2018 documentary, though hardly surprising as McQueen died in 2010]. Why don’t I? Because I’m also a great designer.’”

Do I detect a haughty undertone to Macdonald’s well-bred Scottish accent? If so, it’s well-earned. As the director of Whitney (2018) and Marley (2012), Macdonald can be fairly considered a master of the form, alongside Asif Kapadia, the director of Amy (2015), Senna (2010) and an upcoming Roger Federer doc for Prime Video, reportedly in collaboration with the tennis champion himself. [This story was written before the release of 12 Final Days in June].

What will be the exact nature of Federer’s involvement? Will he have any say on the edit? No idea, because Kapadia did not reply to my request for an interview. Now, in the spirit of the tell-all, let me be transparent: there is an earlier draft of this feature in which I’ve used this paragraph to avenge that minor slight, by heavily and unfairly insinuating that the admired documentarian has sold out to Big Streaming, but wiser heads at Esquire prevailed. Take note, Robbie Williams, Michael Jordan and other score-settling celebs: this is how a truly empowered and independent editor can save you from your own pettiness and improve the final product.

Kevin Macdonald, on the other hand, is here to defend himself against such insinuations, and does so with vigour: “I look at the many films on Netflix and elsewhere, which are produced by the stars in question, and I think, ‘Hang on a minute, why are you attacking me?’” he continues. “When I’m raising really complicated, difficult issues, and where the star in question has no say over the film and there’s no financial connection… And yet you give David Beckham a completely free pass, because you want to see inside his garage!”

On that last count, we’re mostly guilty as charged. I know I wouldn’t mind a glimpse inside Beckham’s garage, not least to check whether Victoria’s dad’s old Rolls-Royce — the subject of Beckham’s most famous, British-class-system-dismantling scene — is now parked there. But Macdonald raises a more important point. When both the puff pieces and the serious documentaries look the same, stream on the same platforms and sometimes even have the same directors, how are we, the cultured consumers, supposed to tell the difference?

Macdonald says he knows where the all-important line is and — pardon the name-drop — it was Mick Jagger who showed him. Macdonald had just finished making One Day in September, his 1999 Oscar-winning documentary about the terrorist attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics, when he got the call: “‘Would you be interested making a film with Mick Jagger?’ And I’m like, ‘That sounds like the most frivolous, fun thing in the world!’” Hanging out on yachts with a rock legend was as fun as expected, but then came the time to put the film together. “He saw it and he didn’t like it, and basically got it re-edited.” The 60-minute film (or rather, “promotional tool to sell CDs”, according to one review) eventually aired on America’s ABC network to low ratings and a baffled Thanksgiving-night audience. “That was my wake-up call. I thought, ‘I don’t want that to happen again. It’s too painful.’ So from then on, I’ve always had final cut.”

Certainly what emerges from watching High & Low is a sense of mutual, artist-to-artist respect. Galliano would no more interfere in Macdonald’s film-making than he would abide interference in his own Maison Margiela autumn/winter 2024 collection. “I think John is smart. He said to me, right at the beginning, ‘I know some people are never going to forgive me, but I want people to understand me.’ And I think that is a subtle, but important difference.”

“Mick Jagger saw it and he didn’t like it, and basically got it re-edited. that was my wake-up call”

If it’s our understanding these celebrities want, then they’ve got it. Facilitating understanding, as opposed to judgement, also seems a noble enough goal for the documentarian. But after watching hours and hours of these films — after seeing Ricky Hatton crying into his cuppa, Taylor Swift reading aloud from her teenage diaries and Steve Martin taking his laundry to the dry-cleaners — I’m disturbed to realise that the feeling goes beyond mere “understanding”. I’m ready to take a bullet for these poor, misunderstood souls.

As both the director of numerous biographical docs and the son of the New Age thinker Deepak Chopra, Gotham Chopra has a theory: “You start to hear that music, like [Bon Jovi’s 1986 album] Slippery When Wet, and it does bring you back, but I think underneath there’s also a character story that’s mythic and archetypal. Because, at a certain level, everybody is talented. It’s actually the grit, the resilience, the work ethic that leads to the success. And I think there’s something relatable, but also aspirational, to that.”

So maybe the free therapy provided by these films isn’t only working for the celebrities. Maybe it’s working for us, too. This might mean, as Chopra suggests, treating these docs as audio-visual self-help manuals to live by. Or it might mean a chance to relive and reflect on our own pasts through the celebrity’s carefully curated archive. We’re watching Take That rolling around in jelly but, simultaneously, we’re remembering who we were when we first saw Take That rolling around in jelly. So when you think about it, Jon Bon Jovi really was looking deep into my eyes, speaking straight to my heart, after all. Interrotron, be damned.

This story originally appeared on Esquire UK


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