Documentary filmmaking can really serve any number of functions. It can be a profile of a revered public figure. It can be a call to action on social and political issues. It can shine a light on obscure little corners of the world. Nonfiction filmmaking isn’t bound by the same structural formats of traditional narrative cinema, meaning that stylistically documentary is a blank slate. Because documentaries can take so many different forms means they’re open to so many different forms of spoof. That’s where Documentary Now! comes in. The show featuring Bill Hader and Fred Armisen takes on the entire genre of documentary with each episode featuring a meticulously crafted spoof of a classic documentary that is catnip for cinephiles and a joy for comedy fans.
Mill Creek Entertainment has just released the first two season of Documentary Now! on Blu-ray and DVD just as the third season of the comedy series gears into production. With each episode of Documentary Now! Armisen and Hader along with directors Rhys Thomas and Alexander Buono take on a different documentary from the vast history of cinema. The episodes don’t just use their non-fiction inspiration as a starting point, the creative team of Documentary Now! basically captures the very essence of the film’s they’re spoofing from every conceivable angle, from the stylistic tics employed by the filmmakers, the odd personalities that are stranger than fiction, and the film stock that was used at the time.
In the first episode of the first season of Documentary Now!, which host Helen Mirren claims is the show’s 50th season, Armisen and Hader take on one of the most famous documentaries ever with Grey Gardens. It’s the episode that establishes just how crazed this comedy series will be while perfectly recreating aspects of the tragedy that Maysles Brothers captured in 1976.
After establishing its comedic tone in the first episode, Documentary Now! spreads its wings and begins to soar as one of the funniest television shows of recent memory. There’s not a bad episode in the show’s inaugural season. Armisen and Hader along with their team of collaborators take on an array of documentaries. There’s a great episode lampooning the bad boys of journalism with their spoof of Vice News, guest starring Jack Black. They recapture the dynamic filmmaking style of Errol Morris in their riff on the classic documentary The Thin Blue Line. The episode that spoofs Nanook Revisited, a documentary examining Robert J. Flaherty’s blend of fiction and non-fiction in Nanook of the North, sees them doing double duty, spoofing the classic ‘20s documentary and the exposé that reexamined it. Then there’s the epic two-part season finale that sees Armisen and Hader spoofing the soft rock titans The Eagles. It’s one of a hilarious show’s funniest episodes that also allows its stars to show off their musical talents as some dumb Chicago boys who strike it big playing California themed music.
There is one episode in the first season of Documentary Now! where I just can’t figure out its cinematic origins. The episode entitled A Town, a Gangster, a Festival about an Icelandic town that has a festival celebrating Al Capone. Numerous sources online point to the 13-part documentary series Hollywood, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the source. Regardless of its origins, A Town, a Gangster, a Festival is a gem of an episode, and I wish that the two-disc set had more special features as to help us better understand the origin of this particular episode.
The second season of Documentary Now! keeps the madness going with another set perfectly crafted documentary spoofs, starting with a hilarious spoof of D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, where Hader steals the show in his character molded on Democratic strategist James Carville. Once again, the show takes on the work of the Maysles Brother, this time with the gritty 16mm tragedy of capitalism Salesman. The beloved sushi documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is warped into Juan Likes Rice and Chicken. Twice in the second season do the team of Documentary Now! take on the non-fiction work of the legendary director Jonathan Demme. The first is an episode featuring Hader’s show-stopping riff on Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia and the second once again highlights the stars’ musical talents with a comedic version of the Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense. Much like the first season, Documentary Now! concludes its second season with a two-part epic taking on the showbiz documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture. This time with Hader takes on the egotism of a character inspired by Robert Evans in the final stunning performance of a hilarious season that really lets Hader run wild.
I’m grateful that all 14 episodes of Documentary Now! are now on Blu-ray to watch when ever I get the itch to see two great comedic actors spoof classics of non-fiction filmmaking. I just wish this set had a bit more in the way of special features. I’d love more information from Fred Armisen and Bill Hader about how they craft their characters based on these real life inspirations. I’d love more information from Rhys Thomas and Alexander Buono how they go about getting these episodes to visually match their inspiration. Alas, it’s just not meant to be. More importantly, having these episodes on physical media ensures that I will have plenty of laughs to hold me over until Documentary Now! returns for its third season in 2019.
- Overall Score
Even though the new Blu-ray set of Documentary Now! lacks in special features, it’s still a must-own for comedy fans and movie lovers as it perfectly spoofs some of the most famous non-fiction movies ever made.