- 18 Apr 18
Once a niche component of cinema, the long-form documentary is now thriving on television.
If we’re really living in a post-truth age, then somebody forgot to tell television. As never before, TV is brimming with fascinating, mind-boggling and horizon-expanding factual series. The long-form documentary has entered a golden era.
Indeed, there’s an argument the genre, at its very highest level, is in the process of transitioning from large to small screen – and that projects that would once have come to us as 90 minute features, playing to two men and a dog at your local arthouse flea pit, are now being expanded, for our bingeing pleasure, into multi-episode shows.
The temptation, when discussing TV in 2018, is to attribute every major shake-up to streaming. For once, that might be the most accurate reading. Just this month Amazon announced it was collaborating with Jordan Peele, Oscar-nominated director of Get Out, on Lorena – a four-parter about Lorena Bobbit, of male-appending removal infamy.
As we wait for the snip to hit the fan over at Amazon, Netflix subscribers have meanwhile been tucking into factual offerings such as Amanda Knox – a table-turning consideration of the arrest and prosecution of the American student for the murder of her British house-mate in Italy – and Flint Town, a devastating eight-hour portrait of left behind America and the forces that swept Trump to office.
These are thoughtful shows that that don’t necessarily wear their heart on sleeve or indulge in the sort of polemic that is common in American documentary especially (cough, Michael Moore, cough). And yet they have struck a chord with audiences – as indeed did Making A Murderer, released without fanfare by Netflix in December 2015, and soon a water-cooler talking point around the world.
Perhaps the buzziest documentary to hit the service since then is Wild Wild Country, the couldn’t-make-it-up chronicling of what happened when an Indian cult moved to remote Antelope, Oregon – population 50 – and engaged in a battle of wills with locals.
What’s remarkable about Wild Wild Country isn’t that it made it to screen – it’s that this extraordinary tale has remained untold for so long. The cast includes the son of the founder of Nike, the daughter of the US Congressman killed investigating the Jonestown cult – who herself joined the Oregon commune – and the ex-wife of the producer of The Godfather.
The tale is fascinating because, as it twists and coils, you’re never sure who to shout for. Are you with the red-neck Oregonians, openly hostile towards these exotic outsiders? Or the cultists, who seem prepared to take whatever steps necessary – including, it is alleged, bussing in homeless people to help rig an election and poisoning a local salad bar to silence pesky critics.
No less compelling – and also just arrived on Netflix – is The Defiant Ones, a grandiosely-titled potted biog of Beats founders Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Originally screened in the US by HBO, it has a superstar line-up of interviewees, including Bono, Springsteen, Trent Reznor, the late Tom Petty, Puff Daddy, Kendrick Lamar, Stevie Nicks – and, naturally Dre and Iovine.
The Defiant Ones was filmed concurrently with Straight Outta Compton, the sanitised retelling of Dr Dre’s rise as a member of NWA, which attracted criticism for glossing over his assault of hip hop journalist Dee Barnes. He’s more forthright here, apologising for the attack and asking for forgiveness. Barnes is interviewed too, revealing that, after going public with the incident, her career as a music presenter petered out. It was as though she was the aggressor, not Dre.
Speaking about the attack was, say the filmmakers, Dre’s idea – not theirs.
“When Dre, Jimmy, and I sat down before we started rolling cameras, there were certain terms that we all agreed to,” director Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, Book of Eli) told Consequence of Sound. “And Dre was at the forefront saying, ‘I have to deal with this, and I want to deal with this situation with Dee Barnes.’ This is way before the Straight Outta Compton film. So we shot his opening up about it and apology before the story resurfaced when the film came out. It was kind of odd to shoot that apology and then him have go through it over again. But it is what it is.”
“I wasn’t sure that Dee would be involved and had never met Dee previously. Dre wanted to deal with it in the film three-and-a-half years ago, and it made me really feel like the film would be something legitimate, that it wouldn’t be a fluff piece.
“But I thought it was even more important for her to be a part of the film because she was a cultural voice at the time and still is very vital. And they had a lot of fun together back then. She was like a little sister to him back in the day. World Class Wreckin Cru and NWA – she was part of that scene.”
The Defiant Ones occasionally tips into hagiography and you wonder if the questioning might no have been tougher – particularly regarding the gangsta rap feud between Suge Knight’s Death Row Records – backed by Iovine’s Interscope – and Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy, a conflict that culminated in the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.
Elsewhere, though, it is revealing and the series succeeds, in particular, as a portrait of a record industry gone, never to return – a place of analogue studios, record pressing plants and gatefold LPs.
It’s a story that almost began with disaster, too. In 2014 Apple was about to announce a $3 billion take-over of Beats. Then a worse-for-wear Dre appeared in a Facebook video alongside rapper Tyrese Gibson, who spills the beans regarding the deal – potentially placing it in jeopardy, as well as the entire raison d’être for Hughes’ doc.
“There are a few things that happened like that along the way, even just in an interview when someone said something unexpected,” said Hughes. “So you’ve gotta be open to unexpected things happening, because they make your narrative much richer than what you had in your head. That happened all the time on this thing.”
Wild Wild Country and The Defiant Ones are on Netflix...