What makes a great film documentary?

Whether you consider the final product a masterpiece, or a piece of… something you’d scrape off your shoe, one thing it’s important to remember is this – filmmaking is a difficult, stressful and all-consuming endeavour, and the best filmmaking documentaries don’t shy away from showing that.

With that in mind, here are a few points as to what we at Late Reviews want to see in a good filmmaking documentary.

Floods, Sweat and Tears

Nobody sets out to make a bad film, and for a film to even be finished is often a bloody wonder. Watching Lost In La Mancha for the first time in almost 15 years for a Late Review, I was struck by just how much access the documentary makers had to the filmmakers, even when things were going – for want of a better term – tits up.

A good documentary shouldn’t shy away from showing the negative elements of the final product (or lack of, in the case of Lost In La Mancha), that’s what makes them different to the super-positive press kits that some studios pass off as extras.

Blood, Sick and Union Woes

I remember randomly stumbling across a documentary called Full Tilt Boogie late one night in the late nineties/early 2000s – it’s a 1997 documentary by Sarah Kelly about the making of the 1996 Robert Rodriguez movie From Dusk Till Dawn.

The feature-length doc has since been included in a DVD package with the Rodriguez film (which might appear as a Late Review one of these days), but the fact it documents all kinds of behind-the-scenes chaos from the shoot – including vampire stripper designs so repulsive they made writer/star Quentin Tarantino retch, location problems and union protests – makes it unlike the shiny, overproduced “didn’t we do well” clips packages you might find elsewhere.

“Get me everyone!”

Shadows Of The Bat is a series of documentaries that span the Warner Brothers Batman 1989-1997 box set. Three of the six parts cover the first Tim Burton movie alone, with one part each for Batman Returns, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.

What’s great about these documentaries is, again, they’re really digging into the material and covering much more ground than your average documentary – and they actually get Jack bloody Nicholson to speak about his lucrative and indelible role as Joker, as well as interviewing all the key players.

Yeah, sure, looking back, they might run out of steam a little towards the end (same could quite generously be said for the films), but for a while there, they’re worth the price of the box set alone.

All That and a Side of Nostalgia…

Back In Time is a 2015 feature-length documentary on cinema’s greatest trilogy*, Back To The Future.

(*You read that right, and I will die on this hill.)

You’re instantly treated to a flood of nostalgia from the film’s opening moments soundtracked by the sombre, country-style guitar cover of Alan Silvestri’s timeless (pun intended), score, before Jason Aron’s documentary takes you deep into the background of the film series.

While it covers them thoroughly and once again interviews all the key players, it doesn’t begin and end with production and release. Cleverly, Aron also considers just how big an impact Back To The Future has had on culture in the last 30-odd years, with wonderfully touching interviews with fans of the series. Well worth a watch if you’re a fan.

That’s It?!

Well, no, obviously not. This is just a Quick Read, flagging up a couple of my own personal favourites.

That being the case, I’ve not mentioned some of the all-time greats (Hearts Of Darkness on Apocalypse Now, The Fear Of God on The Exorcist, Room 237 on The Shining), but I’m pretty sure the documentary genre will be revisited at some point on LateReviewer.com

If you’ve got any moviemaking documentaries you reckon we’d love, or just want to share some thoughts on the ones mentioned above, let us know on Twitter, in the comments or by email.

2 thoughts on “What makes a great film documentary?

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  1. One to add to your list is Best Worst Movie – a documentary about Troll 2. You don’t need to have watched Troll 2 to appreciate the doc (and trust me, don’t waste your time on Troll 2), but the doc is interesting stuff. It effectively follows one of the leads from the movie, and explains what life has been like starring in a notoriously awful movie.


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