Sure, documentaries have long been staples on the art-house circuit. Some (The Thin Blue Line) might even be called cool. But let’s be honest: Most folks still see a documentary as cinematic cough syrup; you know it’s good for you, but you can’t help fearing how icky it’s gonna taste going down.
Lately, however, that medicinal aftertaste is being sweetened by showbiz glitz and audience-friendly subjects. At January’s Sundance Film Festival, a lineup of flashy documentaries (including Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart and Divine Trash, about filmmaker John Waters) got the lion’s share of buzz over the usual spate of slacker-coming-of-age flicks. And Kurt and Courtney, which was pulled from Sundance because of music-rights issues (and pressure from Courtney Love), was the hot ticket at the rival Slamdunk festival. Most notably for a genre that makes news every few years at best, there are three high-profile documentaries hitting theaters: Wild Man Blues, an in-depth look at Woody Allen; The Big One, an anticorporate screed by Roger & Me’s Michael Moore; and the critical fave Moon Over Broadway, which goes behind the scenes of a Broadway play.
”Most audiences want to run when they hear the word documentary because they think it’s not going to be entertaining, and they’re going to be lectured,” says Spike Lee, whose ’97 doc, 4 Little Girls, is up for an Oscar. ”But I think that’s changing a bit.”
One reason why documentaries seem less like Hollywood’s neglected stepchildren these days is that many of these verite flicks are giving the once-staid genre a gonzo kick in the pants. Take Wild Man Blues, directed by Barbara Kopple and set for release from Fine Line April 17. Kopple, who’s already snagged two documentary Oscars and won raves with Wild Man at Sundance, was granted unconditional access to Allen and then-fiancee Soon-Yi Previn during clarinetist Allen’s recent Dixieland jazz tour through Europe. The resulting chronicle is a warts-and-all look at the man behind the tabloid headlines, chockful of such eerie unguarded moments as a scene in which Allen’s mother tells him in front of Soon-Yi, ”I would’ve liked for you to fall in love with a nice Jewish girl.” Says Kopple: ”I think Woody thought we were after the music. But I thought, Aha! I’m going to find out who he is. I wanted to know about his relationship with Soon-Yi because there’s so much controversy.”
Moon Over Broadway, which is out in New York and L.A. and will soon expand to more cities, packs a similarly dishy vibe. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, the filmmaking duo behind 1993’s Clinton campaign expose The War Room, take an insider’s look at the making of the ’95 Broadway farce Moon Over Buffalo, starring Carol Burnett. Moon spares no one: Burnett is dissed mercilessly by the playwright; the director is dressed down by actor Philip Bosco; a supporting actress is seen bellyaching over her unsexy marquee photo. ”When we showed the film to the participants,” says Hegedus, ”it was tense because they were all hearing things that were said behind their backs. But in the end they said, ‘Yeah, that’s what it’s like to put on a Broadway play.”’