Documentaries are dominating the streaming TV space as of late and there are quite a few worth your time this month. From music legend Tina Turner to the college admissions scandal to Q-Anon to the Woody Allen versus Mia Farrow saga, the recent releases by HBO and Netflix prove that truth is still stranger than fiction, especially when the people involved have different versions. The best docs give us detailed facts and participants willing to share everything so that we can consider our own opinions, as most of these films do.
Tina Turner could sing the phone book and it’d be soul-scorchingly rousing. She is undeniably one of the most iconic and powerful voices of all time. This is a woman who can cover the Stones, Zeppelin and The Beatles for example, and not just hold her own but often blow the originals out of the water. As a fan of her Ike & Tina Turner period, there is almost a guilty feeling for some of us, though; she was going through so much pain at the time even as she brought so much beautiful energy and joy to stage and record. TINA doesn’t necessarily reveal anything that we didn’t already know about her abusive marriage to Ike, but it does make us see how hard it was for her to forge her own path after she told the world the truth. Having to rehash and revisit that time in her life for media was like ripping off a scab over and over again so that the wound underneath was never allowed to heal. The doc has lots of sad but not surprising moments, such as when she tells a packed house on opening night of What’s Love Got To Do With It (her biopic starring Angela Bassett) that she hadn’t even seen the film. It was obviously too painful. Despite the dark stuff, her story is uplifting. As we see the tempestuous trajectory of her life unfold in this heart-wrenching chronicle, we also get some astounding musical performances, and even a sort of happy ending with a new sit-down featuring the star herself sharing her life the past several years. She reveals details about how after a lifetime of never feeling truly loved, she met her adoring husband Erwin Bach in the ’80s. Bach, Bassett, Kurt Loder, Oprah Winfrey, and more share their takes on Turner’s talents and journey as music’s most visceral rock & roll soul queen. A lot is made of her rock influences so it would’ve been nice to hear from her legendary rockstar peers – like say, Mick Jagger – alongside the other talking heads, but directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin had a lot to work with on this one and what they did include makes for a more then respectable and extremely touching tribute.
Allen v. Farrow
Woody Allen’s transgressions and alleged abuses are well documented. His adopted daughter Dylan Farrow says that the director molested her as a child in her mother Mia Farrow’s Connecticut home. Just before this occurred in 1992, Farrow found naked pictures of her other, college-aged daughter Soon Yi Previn, at Woody’s apartment; they had clearly been having an affair. In the HBO docuseries Allen vs. Farrow, the whole sordid family drama is aired out, and while it is slanted in Farrow’s favor, it’s got the eye witnesses and research to back up its stances. The four-part exploration directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (who tackled similar territory in On the Record, about the sexual misconduct in the hip-hop world) makes a compelling case against Allen with never before seen documents, sworn testimony and interviews. Dylan is not only believable but assured, as are the siblings who appear and share their memories and perspectives. Farrow too, seems relatable and real here though anyone who’s followed her story or sought to understand both sides of her and Woody’s union and breakup might have shreds of doubt about her intentions and even psyche. If you want to explore this more, as sort of a balance to what’s presented in HBO’s docuseries, By The Way, Woody Allen is Innocent on YouTube, equally biased – in Allen’s favor – is a good comprehensive start. After viewing both we still feel Allen v. Farrow, and Dylan in particular, more credible. Whatever you might believe as a viewer, it’s a fascinating reconsideration of an iconic filmmaker’s artistic choices and personal character that needed to happen now.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal
Matthew Modine playing a guy who helps high school students get into fancy colleges by pretending to play sports (and other lies) makes for some interesting irony; older viewers will probably never forget him as a high school wrestler in the Madonna music-fueled 80’s classic Vision Quest. Modine offers a believable portrayal of one slimy silver-haired Rick Singer, the man at the center of the college admissions scandal which involved Hollywood bigwigs and uber-rich power players paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their kids into the most prestigious universities in the U.S. Singer promised to provide a “side door” for these families to gain entry via SAT cheating and outright untruths about their athleticism, all without the kids knowing, the later fact many of us probably never really believed. In this absorbing doc, actual phone conversations taped by the FBI are re-enacted, proving that many parents were as focused on the dupe of their sons and daughters as their colleges of choice– to protect both their offspring’s legal liability and just as likely, their snowflakey feelings. This is a story about privilege and how those who have it often don’t even realize it because they have been raised a certain way. Utilizing media footage, interviews and reenactments that are far less esoteric than those in the similarly structured The Social Dilemma, this film looks at how Singer not only worked the system over and over and then did it again, when he threw his cohorts under the bus as an informant. Director Chris Smith (whose doc about the ill fated Fyre festival in 2019 was the better of two that came out) shows off his storytelling skills here just as well, but the celeb-specked scandal and comeuppance-filled climax kinda made that easy.
Murder Among the Mormons
We struggled to stay with this three-part series from filmmakers Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and Tyler Measom (Jesus Town, USA) about Mormonism and misconduct of many types. The religion serves as the basis of the story, which also explores forgery of historical documents and an incident involving a bombing and a double murder. Okay it sounds intriguing, but somehow it’s not. The film presents a complicated tale in a formulaic way, but mostly, it’s the lack of charisma from all involved that make this one a meh.
Q- Into The Storm
As they did with Allen vs. Farrow, HBO is rolling out the new Q-Anon doc in weekly increments, which might be frustrating for bingers but makes for anticipatory viewing or what programming exec’s like to call “event TV.” Q-Anon and its followers are pretty fascinating no matter what side you are on politically, though middle/right-leaning folks are surely embarrassed by them. This thorough look at the conspiracy group and its origins and key players wont help matters. Some come off reasonably intelligent, while others come off as total wackadoodles. The code words, the wild theories, the in-fighting and of course, the salaciousness involving movie stars and baby blood drinking are fascinating to hear explained, especially by people who believe it all, and so far the first couple episodes have packed a lot in. You might even have to re-watch to fully understand the computer nerd/web-centric components and how everyone fits together. Part one explained how it all started online via 4chan, social media and a slew of You Tube channels and podcasts, while Part 2 featured 8chan founder Frederick Brennan and father/son duo Jim and Ron Watkins, who took over 2016. As of now, director/narrator/interviewer Cullen Hobeck seems focused on one question: who is Q? Yeah we all wanna know, but a lot more context is needed and hopefully coming. This insidery look is understandably not very relatable, but it’s also not very critical, and we probably all agree that after the Capitol insurrection and Trump’s attempted gaslighting of the country about election fraud, critique and tough questions for Q are a must.