A couple of months into the pandemic, I got tired of watching movies and TV shows and started streaming documentary films instead.
Now I'm hooked.
Documentaries are like reality TV, but without the phony plot lines. Plus, they are easier to digest than theatrical films. The best ones are attached to stories, so they can be emotionally satisfying, too.
Before video streaming became mainstream, watching documentaries was hit-or-miss. Now, if you have access to Netflix, or Prime Video, or any one of several dozen streaming services, you can simply sit down and feast.
Out of the scores of documentaries I have watched since early spring, these are the five that stayed on my mind for days after viewing.
* "Searching for Sugar Man" (2012), Netflix — An American musician known only as Rodriguez was a record-producer favorite in the early 1970s who never caught on with the American public. He sold only a handful of records in the U.S., and rumors persisted that he had killed himself.
Spoiler alert: The makers of this documentary discovered Rodriguez was not dead but had retreated to a quiet life sweeping floors in Detroit. And in a stranger-than-fiction twist, they introduced this soft-spoken workman to the fact that his songs had quietly become anthems in South Africa. The concerts in South Africa that flowed from this revelation in the late 1990s were astonishing — a man who never knew he was famous playing to delirious audiences of 20,000-plus who knew the words to every song. Chill bumps.
* "Every Little Step" (2008) Prime Video — In 2006, 3,000 dancers turned up for a casting call in New York City to audition for a revival of the classic 1970s Broadway musical "A Chorus Line." This documentary follows some of the dancers through several rounds of grueling callbacks. Some of the original cast members from the '70s are also featured.
For baby boomers, "Every Little Step" provides a nostalgic reintroduction to some of the gorgeous Marvin Hamlisch songs in the score. Tunes such as "At the Ballet" and "What I Did for Love" offer visceral thrills. For lovers of Broadway musicals, "Every Little Step" reveals the relentless meritocracy behind the curtains.
* "American Factory" (2019) Netflix — This film won an Academy Award for best documentary, so it's no sleeper. It tells the story of a Chinese billionaire who purchased a closed General Motors auto plant in Dayton, Ohio, in 2014 and turned it into a glass plant.
What starts off as a feel-good story of global cooperation turns into a pro-organized labor film. But the part I found fascinating was how the Chinese workers brought here to help manage the plant interacted with American workers. Basically, they concluded the Americans were lazy, while the U.S. workers thought the work-obsessed Chinese needed to get a life. It's a real-life framing of a culture clash that may define the 21st century.
* "The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley" (2019) HBO — This enthralling film tells the story of a now-defunct Silicon Valley startup company, Theranos, and its charismatic CEO, Elizabeth Holmes.
Holmes, whose trademarks are a deep voice and black turtlenecks, was well on her way to becoming a female version of Steve Jobs. Her company's pet project, a miniaturized blood testing machine dubbed Edison, promised to revolutionize modern medicine. But it never delivered as promised, and the company eventually buckled. The film documents the rise and fall of an earnest entrepreneur with a skill for storytelling.
* "Blackfish" (2013) Netflix — This documentary tells the disturbing story of Tilikum, an orca whale involved in the deaths of several people while in captivity at sea parks, including SeaWorld in Florida. Through behind-the-scenes interviews with Tilikum's trainers, the film examines the tragic deaths and the perils of confining highly intelligent sea mammals for human entertainment.
Email Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.