A good time for a list

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by Rick Bretz

I figured this might be a good time to send out a few suggestions for your viewing pleasure. The streaming services are a goldmine concerning documentaries.   As a huge fan of documentaries, these are my picks for some of the best out there.  These are not listed by rating or any particular order because they are all good. They are only a click away.   

Bobby Kennedy For President-Netflix

This extensive and fair documentary shows Bobby Kennedy from childhood to his last moments after the California primary in 1968.  It is a study in a transformation from growing up, college life,  his work on the congressional committees,  running his brother John Kennedy’s Presidential campaign to his election as New York’s senator and his presidential run.  Although his core personality traits remain as he matures into his 30s and beyond, Bobby Kennedy begins to harness how he uses them for the greater good. Revealing interviews with friends, colleagues and other people who met or knew him define this video portrait in a documentary that is an objective view of Kennedy’s personality and accomplishments.  Like John Kennedy before him, you wonder what might have been after viewing this film.

Bobby Sands:  66 Days-Netflix

Good documentaries educate as well as create their own own mark on the genre.  This is one.  This is the story of the Provisional Irish Republican Army soldier Bobby Sands and his hunger strike while in HM Prison Maze in 1981.  The story cuts back and forth from the start of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, and why he began it, to the history of the conflict between England and Ireland as well as the Northern Ireland troubles. Sands was a person who had the courage to finish what he started and from there, the countdown to day zero begins. The compelling part of this story lies in the total commitment Bobby Sands had toward first volunteering for a hunger strike and then following through. The essential part of the film covers the timeline showing how the Northern Ireland Troubles came to this point of a hunger strike as well as the how that flash point started the road towards a peaceful solution we see today.  This documentary is an education on different levels.

20 Feet From Stardom-Netflix

A fascinating view telling the stories of the backup singers for several popular solo artists and groups. The personalities and voices from these singers make this documentary a captivating story.  Interviews with Darlene Love, Sheryl Crow, Claudia Lennear and Merry Clayton and several more singers let the viewer know where they were on stage and why they remained in a supporting role. Legends Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting offer their viewpoints and praise.    The interview with Darlene Love is especially entertaining. The film’s concert footage and interviews with some of the greats in the music business make this a fascinating look at the voices you’ve heard on the music track to your life.  One last point—Lisa Fischer’s voice is fantastic.

Command and Control-Netflix

I read the book and watched this documentary about how the United States managed and controlled our nuclear capabilities during the Cold War period in American history.  The book offers more detailed accounts of certain events that occurred during the tense stand off with the Soviet Union. The documentary focuses on one event that occurred in Damascus, Arkansas, in September of 1981 that caused a ground explosion at a Titan Missile complex.  Accident investigations drill down to the cause of major disasters and 100 percent of the time these events happen due to a series of mistakes.  In this case, it was due to ignoring standard operating procedures, not using the correct tool for a particular job and other command and control issues.  It’s a story about how one mistake can lead to a catastrophe that could have lead to an even bigger disaster.

The Wrecking Crew-Hulu

The artists you thought were playing the instruments on all of those hit records weren’t.  The musicians on all those Beach Boy hits, The Mamas and the Papas songs, Sonny and Cher records, The Righteous Brothers tunes and many more were men and woman on a exclusive list. They were guitarists, percussionists and keyboard players in the LA area that had the chops. Records producers and engineers needed people who could create and hit the notes when they needed it.  Once more, these people could help produce a hit record on time and under budget when record companies looked at the bottom line.  Names like Tommy Tedesco and Glenn Campbell showed up at the studio and delivered.  In addition to the interviews, the audio from the recording sessions all those years ago is awesome.  When you hear Brian Wilson creating the Good Vibrations music tracks with the Wrecking Crew, you will move forward in your chair.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown-Hulu

Much like the Wrecking Crew, this is a film about the Funk Brothers from the hit Motown years.  These musicians created the Motown sound for the Temptations, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and a whole lot more.  When Berry Gordy formed Motown Records in Detroit, he did a smart thing.  He went to all the Jazz and Blues clubs in the Detroit area and hired the best musicians to back up the tons of hit records his label would produce in the future.  Another fascinating story about the people behind the hits who made the Motown sound.

The Dawn Wall-Netflix

This documentary explores the motivation, perseverance and obsession of free climber Tommy Caldwell and climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson’s attempt to scale the impossible 3000ft Dawn Wall of El Capitan.  The cinemaphotography and the physical toll in taking on the climb makes the audience tired just watching it.  The film is vertigo inducing just looking at some of the shots from where they stop and look down but also when they set up their overnight bed that hangs off the side of a flat mountain rock face.  It’s an edge of your seat and edge of the cliff roller coaster ride.

Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown-Hulu

The comedy legend and philanthropist Jerry Lewis is featured in the documentary that offers more than just laughs. It’s a serious look into the life and personality of Jerry Lewis.  He had to be the businessman as well as the funny man during his life and career. The film interviews friends and colleagues to find out what makes Jerry, well Jerry. The clown make up is off and real Jerry is revealed. if you think you know Jerry Lewis, this film will surprise you.

78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene—Hulu

The 78 and 52 refers to 78 camera setups and 52 cuts. The shower scene in Psycho has been talked about and analyzed before for film documentaries and in just about every film school class.  It is required viewing for film study the world over.  Nevertheless, this documentary shows us new territory by interviewing the body double for Janet Leigh, as well as top film editors from the industry..  As a person who has worked in the video production and news editing business, this documentary was fascinating on many levels.  The level of detail on story boarding, stage planning, and the creation of the music score demonstrates that Alfred Hitchcock was at the top of his craft. The editors and other experts in the documentary tell us how Hitchcock set audience up in the beginning of the film to illicit the shock of the seeing the shower scene.  It is not hyperbole to say this scene changed film editing moving forward.  Yes, Hitchcock broke the rules for this montage sequence, but he knew which ones he was breaking.

Mercury 13-NetFlix

The great thing about the United States is eventually wrongs are righted. A few of these documentaries I have seen more than once, and this is one of them.  This film tells the story of women pilots from the barnstorming days, then to the WWII pilots supporting the war effort and onto the Mercury 13.  Who are the Mercury 13? I didn’t know this but there once was a program in the early 1960s for women astronauts when NASA first began its quest to get to the moon and return.  The men who ran the program in the early 60s killed it. The prejudices, social mores of that time and the boys club mentality shut it down.  Consequently, the first women into space was Russian Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.   Here’s the great thing about this documentary, other than the interviews and footage of the great women pilots from that era, and that is they did better on the NASA tests than the men did.  Well, there you have it. The women featured on this documentary were excellent pilots and maybe the best of them all was Jacqueline Cochrane.  She’s feature here too but she didn’t get selected for the program. The story of the original Mercury 13 women astronaut candidates paved the way for all who followed and ushered in the success of women in NASA’s Shuttle program.

Bonus Documentary—The Keepers.  One that will keep you thinking long after you watch it.

One thought on “A good time for a list”

  1. Great information here. I also am a huge fan of documentaries and have not seen any of these. Now finding myself with much more free time, I will be checking these out. Thank you for taking the time to provide your insight of each documentary.

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