documentary now!

Get to Know the Films That Inspired Documentary Now!

Documentary Now!’s two-part season-three premiere was inspired by the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. Photo: Vulture, IFC and Netflix

There’s a moment in an upcoming episode of the IFC series Documentary Now! that encapsulates the whole mad genius of the show. In “Original Cast Album: Co-op” — based on a 1970 D.A. Pennebaker documentary about a marathon recording session for Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company — John Mulaney, playing the ersatz Sondheim, riffs on an incident in Pennebaker’s doc where the Broadway composer tries to get a cast member to pronounce bubbi the way he wants her to. In the episode, the poor singer is played by Hamilton star Renée Elise Goldsberry, who’s baffled why her boss wants the word ruined to rhyme with harpooned.

The “bubbi” scene in Original Cast Album: Company is far, far from its most memorable. But the Documentary Now! writers (in this case Mulaney and Seth Meyers) have zeroed in on it, perhaps because they thought it was funny, but also because it’s essential to understanding what the original film’s really all about: fussy precision, delivered on a tight deadline.

Documentary Now!’s third season, which debuted this week, arrives after two previous seasons (both available on Netflix) that seem to have been made for an audience of about a dozen people. Meyers, Mulaney, and the rest of the core creative team of Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Alex Buono, and Rhys Thomas tend to eschew the obvious with their parodies. Instead they like the grainy images of an old film, or the quirky nuances in the behavior of an ordinary person being filmed. Often, the biggest joke in any Documentary Now! episode is that anyone would devote so much time and attention to re-creating a movie not many people have seen.

So, for anyone out there who’s had a hard time “getting” Documentary Now!, here’s a hopefully helpful guide to the major titles the series has parodied in the past — and will spoof this season. What follows is an appreciation of how (and why) the episodes parody these movies, and notes on where the originals can be found online: to rent, to buy, to stream as part of a subscription service, or to stream as part of an ad-supported service.

Season One

(Note: There are two episodes from season one without a single clear antecedent: Episode two, “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon” is more of a general takedown of Vice-style political docs; while episode five, “A Town, a Gangster, a Festival,” calls back to the genial regional studies of filmmaker Les Blank.)

• Grey Gardens, 1975 (Episode 1.1, “Sandy Passage”)

The filmmaking team of Albert and David Maysles have inspired two Documentary Now! entries thus far, both of which uncannily re-create the kind of novelistic slices of life the brothers helped popularize in the 1960s. Grey Gardens (co-directed with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer) explores a crumbling East Hampton mansion, and the strange daily lives of its two residents, both former socialites related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. As the first episode of Documentary Now!, “Sandy Passage” establishes just how eerily accurate and deadpan the show’s going to be. Fred Armisen and Bill Hader barely exaggerate anything in their versions of “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie.” Instead, they’re aiming their impressions at people who’ve seen and loved the Maysles film, and who’ll chuckle just at how amazingly on point they are. The episode also throws in a good, sick twist at the end — best left unspoiled — which draws clever connections between Grey Gardens and another infamous piece of voyeur cinema.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers; also available on Kanopy; and will likely be part of the new Criterion Channel when it goes live on April 8.

• Nanook of the North, 1922 (Episode 1.3, “Kunuk Uncovered”)

One of the first purportedly nonfiction films to become widely popular, Robert Flaherty’s ethnographic study of an Inuit man surviving in the remote Canadian Arctic tundra has long been criticized for just how much of the walrus-hunting, igloo-building action was actually staged. “Kunuk Uncovered” frames its Nanook spoof as an inquiry into the controversy, and weaves voices and images from the past and present into a surprisingly profound and dryly funny conversation, about whether documentary filmmakers have an obligation to serve the literal truth and to respect the dignity of their subjects, or if they can fake whatever they want and exploit whomever they need in the name of art.

Where to find it: Because it was originally released in 1922, the movie is essentially in the public domain, and can be found in versions of varying quality on YouTube and elsewhere. It’s also on Kanopy and will likely be part of the new Criterion Channel.

The Thin Blue Line, 1988 (Episode 1.4, “The Eye Doesn’t Lie”)

Two years before American Vandal turned a subtle parody of true-crime documentaries into a deeper meditation on the struggles of daily existence, Documentary Now! did the same with its version of Errol Morris’s murder-mystery The Thin Blue Line. While aping the original’s arty re-creations of a heinous crime, “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” cuts to the heart of what the Morris film is really saying. It’s not just about a miscarriage of justice, and not just about the unreliability of memory; it’s also about what happens when a couple of bored, lonely guys meet up in the middle of nowhere and just try to kill some time together.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers; and will likely be part of the new Criterion Channel.

• History of the Eagles, 2013 (Episodes 1.6 and 1.7, “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee”)

The Documentary Now! season-one finale stepped up the series’s ambition, inventing a fake ’70s soft-rock band — complete with credibly catchy songs — and telling the long story of how they broke up, stretched across two parts. The obvious model for the Blue Jean Committee is the Eagles, given the music’s country-influenced style, and the way the episode’s plot drifts into disputes over business contracts and artistic integrity. But “Gentle & Soft” also borrows from many other “behind the music” docs; and like a lot of this show’s best episodes, it’s ultimately a well-drawn character study, about a pair of friends and musical partners who have different visions for how to live a happy, fulfilling life.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers; also available on Qello.

Season Two

• The War Room, 1993 (Episode 2.1, “The Bunker”)

D.A. Pennebaker brought the revolutionary “direct cinema” approach of the 1960s into the ’90s with The War Room, a documentary about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, co-directed with Chris Hegedus. At the time the movie was released, America’s political left was still giddy over retaking the executive branch following 12 years of Republican leadership. Pennebaker and Hegedus helped make stars of campaign advisers George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, who look like shrewd but principled strategists in the doc. “The Bunker,” on the other hand, aired on IFC for the first time toward the end of the dispiriting Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump race. Bill Hader and Fred Armisen’s respective impressions of Carville and Stephanopoulos have an unusually serrated edge for this show, marking the duo as architects of a dangerously shallow modern form of politicking.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers; also available on Kanopy; and will likely be part of the new Criterion Channel.

• Jiro Dreams of Sushi, 2011 (Episode 2.2, “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken”)

Before director-producer David Gelb created the ultimate food-porn series, Netflix’s Chef’s Table, he was best known for the poetic, philosophical Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which documents the rigorous process and exacting standards of an elderly Tokyo restaurateur. “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” casts Fred Armisen as this show’s version of Jiro, reimagined as a Colombian chef who makes the simplest dish in the world for a select few. It also casts Bill Hader as the old man’s son, who’s stopped trying to measure up to his dad’s legacy, and is instead now just looking to cash in. Like the Blue Jean Committee episode, “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” is both a meticulous replica of a visually distinctive doc and a genuinely moving story about two people with wildly diverging values.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers; also available on Netflix, on Hulu, and (with ads) on YouTube.

Swimming to Cambodia, 1987 (Episode 2.3: “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything”)

Documentary Now!’s second season features two homages to the films of Jonathan Demme, which aired a few months before the director’s 2017 death. Though best-known for fiction features like The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme also made a number of docs and performance films, and always looked for striking ways to present the material. “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” probably started out as an excuse for Bill Hader to do his impression of the late New York performance artist Spalding Gray, and to attempt one of Gray’s famously eloquent monologues about his eventful life. But the episode’s style is remarkably true to Demme’s film Swimming to Cambodia, which relies on unexpected camera moves and editing to turn Gray’s quirky anecdotes into gripping drama.

Where to find it: The Demme film is currently unavailable online in any legal form, but Steven Soderbergh compiled some odds and ends from other Gray monologues into a posthumous film called And Everything Is Going Fine, which is available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers and will likely be part of the new Criterion Channel.

• Salesman, 1969 (Episode 2.4: “Globesman”)

Nodding to another Maysles brothers classic, in “Globesman,” a group of sad-sack traveling salesman try to get ordinary Middle Americans to buy globes, just like the schmoes do in Salesman (co-directed by the Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin), schlepping expensive family bibles from one working-class Catholic home to the next. The episode’s stark black-and-white cinematography and muted, mumbling dialogue mirrors the unrelenting miserablism and sardonic humor of the original: a movie that’s like Death of a Salesman in documentary form.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers; also available on Kanopy; and will likely be part of the new Criterion Channel.

• Stop Making Sense, 1984 (Episode 2.5, “Final Transmission”)

The second Demme tribute in season two is a showcase for Fred Armisen’s impression of Talking Heads front man David Byrne — just like “Parker Gail” belonged to Bill Hader’s Spalding Gray. Unlike the Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, “Final Transmission” intercuts performance footage of a beloved New Wave band’s last concert with reflective modern-day interviews, which is more akin to what Martin Scorsese did in his film about the Band, The Last Waltz. But the concert scenes themselves are pure Talking Heads and pure Demme, emphasizing how a brainy, aloof rock act uses theatrical devices and limber physicality to move an audience.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers; also available on Amazon Prime, Qello, and (with ads) on Vudu and Tubi.

• The Kid Stays in the Picture, 2002 (Episodes 2.6 and 2.7, “Mr. Runner Up: My Life As an Oscar Bridesmaid”)

Following in the footsteps of the season-one finale, season two’s “Mr. Runner Up” is another hugely ambitious two-partner, spanning decades, with re-creations of archival footage from multiple eras — often for the purposes of clips that last only a few seconds. This is one of the most fast-paced and funny episodes, in the spirit of its source material: Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s zippy adaptation of Hollywood producer Robert Evans’s absurdly self-mythologizing memoir. The disconnect between elaborate presentation and an often mundane subject is a Documentary Now! speciality, and a way of expressing appreciation for a great doc by showing how its style can make even a not-that-important topic look exciting.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers.

Season Three

• Wild Wild Country, 2018 (Episodes 3.1 and 3.2, “Batsh*t Valley”)

This year, Documentary Now! trotted out its big two-parter for the season premiere, perhaps hoping to hook the millions of Netflix subscribers who’ve seen Wild Wild Country, Maclain and Chapman Way’s intense six-hour documentary about a controversial ’80s Oregon ashram. The official press material for this season says that “Batsh*t Valley” is also inspired by 2012’s The Source Family; and there are elements, too, of 2016’s Holy Hell, 2015’s Prophet’s Prey, 2007’s Surfwise, and other films about life inside a cult. But the cornerstone here is Wild Wild Country: an epic-length doc about how bizarre behavior gets normalized in the context of religious fervor.

Where to find it: Available on Netflix.

• Original Cast Album: Company, 1970 (Episode 3.3, “Original Cast Album: Co-Op”)

Not only do “Co-Op” director Alex Buono and credited writers Seth Meyers and John Mulaney create an astonishingly accurate knockoff of the rough framing and “fly on the wall” casualness of Original Cast Album: Company, they also pay special attention to the sensibility and manner of Stephen Sondheim, whom Mulaney satirizes brilliantly. From the faux-Sondheim’s offhanded dismissal of other people’s musicals, to the way he looks at his cast with a combination of affection and disappointment, this episode gets the Broadway legend’s irascible charm. And that’s not even taking into account how well the Documentary Now! musicians magically regenerate the exact sounds that the Company orchestra produced in a New York studio for the original doc. Even D.A. Pennebaker — still alive and kicking in his early 90s — will be in awe.

Where to find it: Currently unavailable online in any legal form, though a lot of it can be found on YouTube.

• Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, 2010 (Episode 3.4: “Waiting for the Artist”)

Season three’s parade of high-profile guest stars hits its peak in the “Waiting for the Artist” episode, which has Cate Blanchett playing a version of confrontational conceptual artist Marina Abramović. The Abramović documentary The Artist Is Present covers her long history of challenging museumgoers’ notions of what “art” is, and culminates in footage from her popular 2010 Museum of Modern Art residency, where she invited people to sit and stare silently into her eyes. Blanchett is no stranger to that kind of provocation: A 2015 Julian Rosefeldt installation (collected into the experimental feature film Manifesto) had people roaming through spaces where the actress would make bold pronouncements to them in different guises, projected onto screens.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers; also available on Kanopy.

• Dear Mr. Watterson, 2013 (Episode 3.5: “Searching for Mr. Larson: A Love Letter From the Far Side”)

After starring or co-starring in every episode of Documentary Now!’s first two seasons, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader appear much less often in season three. But Armisen does have two major lead roles this year, the first of which comes in “Searching for Mr. Larson,” in which he plays the director and subject of a film about a perky fan of Gary Larson’s The Far Side comic. The episode specifically references a similarly bubbly documentary about a fan of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes; but really it takes on the whole subgenre of first-person “fan docs” (see also: Springsteen & I, Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements, etc.) wherein impossibly upbeat folks gush about their pop-culture faves.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers; also available on Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and (with ads) on Vudu and Tubi.

• Let’s Get Lost, 1988 (Episode 3.6, “Long Gone”)

Fred Armisen’s second big season-three episode takes aim at the 1980s mini-wave of moody black-and-white documentaries about jazz greats, like Charlotte Zwerin’s Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, and — especially — Bruce Weber’s harrowing and beautiful Chet Baker doc Let’s Get Lost. Armisen’s performance as a fading musical legend, drifting through great cities, barely coherent enough to answer questions or to get to a show on time, gets at the way so many jazz docs romanticize dissolution.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers; also available on Qello, and (with ads) on Vudu and Tubi.

• A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, 2005 (Episode 3.7: “Any Given Saturday Afternoon”)

The title of “Any Given Saturday Afternoon” suggests a riff on Bruce Brown’s classic 1971 motocross doc On Any Sunday, but alas, no. (C’mon Documentary Now!. Brown’s films are a natural for this show.) Instead, this is a sweet spoof of a movie about top pro bowlers, trying to work with the new owners of their league to make the sport as popular as it used to be. The reduced presence of Armisen and Hader in season three means that there are no episodes this year that explore two friends or family members in conflict — previously a reliable Documentary Now! theme. The trade-off is that the show can now get accomplished actors and comics like Bobby Moynihan, Tim Robinson, Kevin Dunn, and Michael C. Hall to star in an episode like “Any Given Saturday Afternoon,” which nods to a documentary that features a wide variety of memorable characters, living and working and dreaming.

Where to find it: Available to rent or buy at the major digital retailers.

Get to Know the Films That Inspired Documentary Now!