We are living in the Golden Age of documentaries

Nov 27, 2023
Source: Getty Images.

One of the great joys of my early life was reading biographies. I’d devour page and page of some famous figure’s life to help me understand what made them tick. What made them into the public person that I knew so well, if only from a distance?

I have a friend, another journalist, who ghost wrote biographies for some very famous people. He tells the story of arriving in Hollywood to meet a singer to see if there was a connection and if they might be able to craft the star’s story together. He stayed with that person for four months. Living with them every day, before telling their story in a 400-page book. The book was great, but in reality, it was his view of that person.

Now rather than reading someone else’s opinions, we can sit and watch hours of homemade videos, tears and tantrums, and in-depth interviews to help reveal their true personality. Storytellers are making so many documentaries, we now have festivals to celebrate the best on offer.

Here’s my list of 10 documentaries worth a look, especially if you are over 60 and grew up with these influential figures.

10. Robbie Williams (Netflix)

To say that the 49-year-old former Take That singer is damaged is a bit of an understatement. This documentary reveals Williams’s long and arduous battles with drug and alcohol excess. A lot of the interviews are filmed as he rolls around in his bed or walks slowly to-and-from the shower. Typical Williams. He gives us a rare insight into what it is like to be so famous that you can’t step out into the public. And of course, this is the typical rags to riches story that we all love.

9. Searching for Sugar Man (Amazon)

This award-winning documentary is worth another look, especially as the Detroit singer Sixto Diaz Rodriguez passed away this year. When the filmmakers started making this documentary, they presumed Rodriquez was dead. Stories circulated that he had killed himself on stage by pouring petrol over his head and setting himself on fire. None of that was true. What was true was that he had been ripped off by the record industry and was virtually unknown in his hometown Detroit. When he finally steps back on to a stage in South Africa his world is changed forever. Goosebumps!

8. Bowling for Columbine (Amazon)

This 2002 documentary was groundbreaking at the time of its release. Michael Moore puts the focus on America’s flawed gun culture through the lens of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School massacre where two 12th-grade students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students and one teacher. One of the most poignant moments of the documentary comes when Moore takes one of the surviving shooting victims (now in a wheelchair still with the bullets in his spine) to Kmart Headquarters to return the bullets to the store where the shooters bought them. Re-watching this documentary shows us that America clearly does not learn from its mistakes.

7. Welcome to Wrexham (Disney)

This is my current obsession. Disney has just signed off on Season Three of this show that follows Hollywood heart-throb Rob Reynolds and TV star Rob McElhenney as they buy Welsh football club Wrexham and try to get them back into at least Football League 2. Wrexham, as a town and football club, has been struggling for 14 years before a little touch of Hollywood is added to its ownership team. This is so much more than just a football story. It opens the window into a town, its history, and its characters.

6. Beckham (Nextflix)

Continuing on the football theme, the four-part Beckham documentary gives us a rare insight into the Manchester United and England icon’s personal life. One of the pluses of Beckham being involved in the making of this series is that we get access to personal and private family footage. The negative side of his involvement is that he – and his superstar wife Posh Spice – get to partly control the narrative. Beckham has lived his life in the public eye from a very early age, but still, this documentary manages to surprise.

5. Get Back (Disney)

When award-winning director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) got his hands on rare, unseen Beatles footage and soundtracks from Twickenham Film Studios he knew he had discovered some real story-telling magic. The Beatles are simply The Beatles. No one else in music compares. So, for us today to be given an eavesdropper’s view into the recording process in this eight-hour documentary is priceless. We not only witness history, but also the friendship, and fierce fighting of the Fab Four.

4. Utopia (Amazon)

Journalist John Pilger’s 2013 epic Utopia film documents the atrocities committed against Indigenous Australians. It doesn’t matter how you voted in the recent Voice referendum, this film is worth watching as part of understanding our country’s history from colonisation to the Stolen Generation, to living conditions in rural communities just a decade ago. It is not easy to watch. Pilger never is. At times, it stabs at your heart.

3. March of The Penguins (Freeview)

Narrated by Morgan Freeman, this 2005 nature documentary is truly amazing. It will take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions, guaranteed to make you laugh and cry in the same sitting. It follows the yearly journey of the emperor penguins of Antarctica.

2. When We Were Kings (Amazon)

This Oscar-winning documentary from 1996 tells the story of the legendary showdown between boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Ali at the time was the most recognisable person in the world. He could not only fight, but he had lashings of charisma and character – and delivered sport’s best one-liners. Boxing today is but a shadow of what it was when Ali graced the ring as the King of Boxing.

1. The Up Series (Amazon)

In 1964, filmmaker Michael Apted told the story of 14 children (10 boys and four girls) for his Granada Television special 7 Up. Every seven years since he has returned to his subjects to see how life has changed. In 2019, 63 Up aired, the ninth show in the series. The filmmaker plans to keep going with this social experiment for as long as he can.

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