Documentaries aren’t everyone’s jam, but I totally eat that shit up. Being what my mom has (many times) referred to as a know-it-all, I seriously enjoy sitting down, watching something and walking away having gained knowledge from the experience. Sure, I can relatively say the same thing after a Harry Potter bingefest (I love Harry Potter, so no need to put the Imperius Curse on me), but I think we can all agree it’s kind of different.
So fellow fact lovers, rejoice. Netflix and Hulu are home to a variety of verifiably awesome documentaries, whether you’re into cooking or calligraphy or the dark and twisted minds of serial killers.
Design Is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli (Netflix)
One of my art director friends recommended this one to me, and I’m sure glad I took his advice. The Vignellis are legendary in both the design world and in the country of Italy, and whether or not you can definitively point out their work, I guarantee you’ve seen it before. Massimo famously redesigned the map for the New York Subway system, improving it in both a visual and practical sense. His wife, Lella, the CEO of Vignelli Designs, served an integral role in designing packaging and logos for the likes of American Airlines, Bloomingdale’s and IBM. Together, they were two halves of a perfect creative and business mind. This one will leave you with the itch to create and the sense you can do anything.
Gimme Shelter (Hulu)
Gimme Shelter follows the events leading up to (and the aftermath of) The Rolling Stones’ ultimately disastrous free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway in 1969. What was supposed to be a peace-and-love-in dubbed the Woodstock West quickly turned into a December evening filled with unbelievable violence; the Hells Angels were there to provide security and ended up beating both concertgoers and musicians (Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was punched in the head and knocked unconscious) senseless. An 18-year-old was stabbed to death, and there were two hit-and-run deaths and one by accidental drowning. Known as documenting “the day that went perfectly wrong,” Gimme Shelter is an interesting look at the dark side of 1960s counterculture.
Anyone who has endured eating with me or even talked to me for about 10 minutes is aware of my love of Sriracha. There is not a damn dish in the world that can’t be made better with a sweet little drizzle of this tangy, spicy, punch-you-in-the-stomach Thai sauce. Sriracha tells the story of immigrant David Tran and his vast empire of Huy Fong Foods, the genius company behind America’s beloved rooster sauce. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll plan a pilgrimage to the town of Si Racha in Thailand — this is a good one.
Blackfish is a divisive documentary, to say the least, but I found it absolutely fascinating. Taking a decidedly critical stance on SeaWorld and practically all that it stands for, the film focuses on male orca whale Tilikum, who has caused three deaths during his time in captivity, and the negative ramifications of removing such strong, smart animals from their natural habitats. Obviously there are two sides to every story, so take the presented facts in Blackfish with a grain of salt; even so, it’s films like these that leave you questioning the status quo, and I’m all about that.
History of the Eagles (Netflix)
My parents raved for weeks about The Eagles’ concert at Chesapeake back in May. And while I didn’t get tickets to the actual show, I was graciously invited over to join in a viewing of the concert documentary on Netflix (live music is so overrated, after all). While not nearly as pleasing as seeing Don Henley in person, History of the Eagles absolutely did justice to one of my favorite 20th-century bands. It’s a great introduction/refresher course for those who want to familiarize themselves with The Eagles, plus it will even teach a thing or two to the most well-versed fans of the beloved 70s-era desperados. Full of sex, drugs, jealousy, left hooks, and some of the greatest harmonies to come out of the American musical landscape, History of the Eagles is a must-see for any self-respecting rock fan.
Grey Gardens (Hulu)
A tale of quirk, extreme hoarding and the most bizarre relationship between a mother and daughter ever to be captured on film, Grey Gardens documents the reclusive existence of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, two East Hamptonites who just so happened to be close relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Widely regarded as one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries in American cinema, Grey Gardens is nevertheless heartbreaking in its true-to-life portrayal of two women who succumbed to paranoia, distrust, and the seemingly soul-crushing ramifications of a high society bloodline. It may be a visual representation of a virtual train wreck, but it’s worth watching for its historical significance alone.
The Imposter (Netflix)
Totally creepy but damn near impossible to stop watching, The Imposter chronicles the incredible deception brought forth by Frédéric Bourdin, a French citizen who impersonated a missing Texas 13-year-old and even convinced the child’s own family members that he was their son and brother, Nicholas Barclay. “How?” “Why?” and “What the holy hell?” are the main questions you’re going to be asking yourself during The Imposter, an impression-making documentary about human nature, its propensity for blind ignorance/acceptance and its extreme need for being loved.
Jonestown: Paradise Lost (Netflix and Hulu)
The Jonestown incident is how the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” came to enter the popular vernacular. I typically hate dramatic reenactments and everything else that’s in the realm of being cheesy and unnecessary, but said scenes in Jonestown totally work and the film is basically better for it. Crash course for those who have never heard of Jonestown: Jim Jones, a religious leader turned communist turned extreme Marxist, emigrates his camp of Peoples Temple (read: cult) followers to Guyana in the late 70s to form a supposedly utopian community. In November 1978, the group participated in a mass murder-suicide that resulted in the deaths of 909 American citizens, nearly one-third of which were children. Jones’ son Stephen lived to tell the tale (he was away at a basketball tournament at the time of the incident), and he and other survivors/defectors add a surreal touch of reality to the documentary’s otherwise otherworldly sensation.