Here are the five best documentaries I saw this year. The top three were so good they could have been included on my overall Best Of 2019 list. If you missed them in theaters, I recommend you catch up with them on DVD, Netflix, or Amazon Prime. Links go to my full reviews.
#1) “Apollo 11” My thought before seeing this doc was, “What can it possibly contain that I — a child of the Space Race and enthusiastic absorber of all things related to real human adventures in space — haven’t seen so many times before?” How about pristine, 65mm footage that’s only recently been discovered? How about Neil Armstrong’s descent down the LEM ladder and onto the lunar soil from a different angle than the one we’ve always seen? How about a clear version of Armstrong’s “small step” announcement, straight from the NASA feed, without any TV anchors reacting or interrupting? How about previously unseen footage from launch tower cameras, as well as inside the stages of the engines as they separate? They’re all here in “Apollo 11.”
#2) “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice” I have written several times of my admiration for Linda Ronstadt, whose singing voice was silenced a decade ago by Parkinson’s Disease. Now comes a documentary that reminds us how robust her talents were, from pop ballads to outright rockers, from standards to Broadway, and traditional Mexican music, too. Throughout the documentary, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman dig up great footage of Ronstadt performing, and show a slew of her contemporaries praising her. They all agree that while she didn’t write the songs, she sang them better, and made them her own (e.g. “You’re No Good,” which had been a minor hit for Betty Everett, but became a smash when Ronstadt did it). “The Sound Of My Voice” is a reminder of how influential she was, both in front of and behind the microphone.
#3) “They Shall Not Grow Old” Peter Jackson’s war documentary is the story of Englishmen who went off to fight in World War I, an ugly ground war whose most advanced technology was tanks grinding across open fields. The rest of it was down and dirty, fought with rifles and bayonets, while dodging incoming mortars. Jackson started with thousands of hours of original footage from the Imperial War Museum, which he and his staff digitized and restored over four years. To make it more palatable to modern audiences, he also colorized and made many of the scenes 3-D. Watching it, you see the fuzzy, original, century-old footage for several minutes, then it suddenly has depth, and when the black-and-white transforms into the greens-and-reds-and-browns of the uniforms and scenery, it’s mesmerizing.
#4) “American Factory” A Chinese billionaire buys a dormant American auto factory and puts thousands of former employees back to work, though not at union wages. He also imports a couple hundred supervisors from the home office, who clash with the underlings they consider lazy and disloyal. Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar use the extraordinary access they were given to reveal the struggles of blue-collar workers in the US desperately trying to cling to the middle class as economic circumstances and automation threaten the livelihoods they’ve counted on.
#5) “David Crosby: Remember My Name” There’s no denying that David Crosby has earned a place in rock and roll history, having been inducted twice into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (with the Byrds and CSN), but he’s also done and said terrible things to the people closest to him, in many cases pushing them away forever. This is by no means a white-washing of the man’s life, nor an apology to those he’s wronged. It’s a warts-and-all look at a very flawed man who happened to have a remarkable voice.
Also on Harris Online…