The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
As if the production of “Apocalypse Now” hadn’t been unhinged enough, Eleanor Coppola, the wife of the director Francis Ford Coppola, filmed documentary footage that stretched across the 238 days of principal photography. She also recorded audio of conversations with her husband during the shoot. The result is that the making of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) — a case in which the madness depicted onscreen seemed to rub off on everyone involved — is extremely well and entertainingly documented.
Eleanor’s footage forms the backbone of “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” — the direction is otherwise credited to Fax Bahr “with” George Hickenlooper — which captures the production from its earliest conception (George Lucas and John Milius, one of the screenwriters, appear as talking heads) to the triumphant arrival of the director for a screening at the Ziegfeld in Manhattan.
The bulk of the running time is given over to filming in the Philippines, where neither the weather nor Ferdinand Marcos’s government (which supplied helicopters for the production) fully cooperated. The star, Martin Sheen, apparently had a sweet temperament that made him the antithesis of the would-be assassin he had agreed to play, and the performance took him to some strange places. (He also had a heart attack at 36, necessitating even more workarounds in shooting.) There are recollections of how an overpaid and underprepared Marlon Brando, like Kurtz himself in the movie, arrived late in the game, then demanded minute explanations of Kurtz’s motivations as if time were no object.
Arguably “Hearts of Darkness” is a little out of date: Coppola has since put out two revised versions of the film, the unwieldy “Apocalypse Now Redux” in 2001 and the comparatively streamlined “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut” in 2019. Yet neither the movie nor the tales of the wild risks involved in its making — or of how Coppola, having potentially staked his solvency on the project, somehow wrested a classic from the confusion — ever grow tired.
One facet of making a feature documentary is that you can rarely be sure how your story will turn out. But to Gemma, everyone raised in the part of the former steel town of Motherwell, Scotland, where she is from tends to turn out the same way. “If you stay here, you’ll either get locked up or knocked up,” she says at the start of the movie, directed by the Swedish filmmakers Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin.
Gemma herself says she does not know her mother, who has not been a part of her life since Gemma was little. And when the teenage Gemma gets pregnant by Pat, who, by his own admission, “used to be a wee thug,” history initially seems to be repeating itself. But Gemma says she could never leave her son the way her mother left her. Could there be a way out of Motherwell? The “birds” of the title refer in part to the pigeons kept by Joseph, the grandfather who raised Gemma — pigeons that, as Gemma notes, have flown all around the world.
Unexpected twists, and the way Fiske and Hallin are unafraid of veering off to follow the stories that unfold before them, elevate “Scheme Birds” beyond a typical portrait of hard knocks. Joseph, who early on is shown trying to teach Gemma to box — she should take out her frustrations in the gym, he says, and stay away from people with alcohol and drugs — seems to step back from Gemma’s life; according to Gemma, it’s because he doesn’t like Pat. One of Gemma’s friends, J.P., is seriously injured in what’s described as a “stupid fight,” and the filmmakers explore how his narrow survival affects both his life and the life of Amy, a friend and neighbor of Gemma’s whom he was seeing. There’s a real sense that Fiske and Hallin captured the film’s drama organically, through patient observation.
‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)’ (2021)
True, this “jawn” from Ahmir Thompson, the musician and first-time feature director better known as Questlove, has not exactly lacked for attention; it won the best-documentary Oscar, after all. But it’s summer, and Thompson’s assembly of neglected footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is probably the next-best thing to actually attending what eventually became known as the Black Woodstock.
Distilling a six-weekend event into two hours, the movie features showstopping performances from B.B. King, Nina Simone, Mavis Staples singing with Mahalia Jackson and many others. The suspense and electricity of Sly and the Family Stone’s entrance (“Just because they introduced Sly doesn’t mean he’s there. It also doesn’t mean he’s coming out immediately”), and the analysis of Stone’s stagecraft are particular highlights.
You might argue that the interviewees with attendees, participants and organizers constitute unnecessary hand-holding, and perhaps they seem so at first. But the discussions of history, politics and the cultural crosscurrents of the time do much to illuminate the music (and vice versa). There are some jokes from the stage about the moon landing, which happened during the festival. (One attendee, part of the audience, tells a reporter that the “cash they wasted, as far as I’m concerned, in getting to the moon could have been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem and all over the place.”) And while the Harlem Cultural Festival couldn’t claim that sort of global reach, for almost two hours Questlove’s film makes it seem epic.