Morgan Spurlock’s Nine Entry-Level Documentaries

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If you’ve watched our interview with Morgan Spurlock, you’ll already be aware of what we mean by a “gateway documentary”. If you haven’t, here’s the scoop: it’s a documentary that’s perfect for everyone, something totally accessible, very rewatchable and essentially a bloody good laugh. In other words, head-scratchers like An Inconvenient Truth need not apply, but dissections on the world of competitive Donkey Kong-playing can. We’ve gathered together his recommended list and profiled them here, so you can find one that’s perfect for you. So sit back, relax, and prepare to discover more about nine of the coolest documentaries ever made…

Director: Seth Gordon
Released:** 2007
Empire Rating:*

We’re willing to make a small bet that before this hit cinemas, precious few people were aware that gamers still played 1981 platforming classic Donkey Kong competitively – let alone that the subject could provide enough drama, intrigue and excitement to create one of the best-loved, most rewatchable documentaries ever made.

Blowing the lid off the otherwise quite cliquey world of Donkey Kong-playing, director Seth Gordon crafts a dramatic tale of the rivalry between plucky underdog Steve Wiebe and grumpy one-time champ Billy Mitchell. The former's an average Joe who somehow manages to best the world's Donkey Kong high score, the latter the man he beat – a long-time legend in the Kong world with the beard and hair of a Hans Gruber impersonator. Their battle for supremacy creates a surprisingly engaging story of (alleged) deception, betrayal and very sore thumbs – and one that even the biggest game-haters will have a hard time not enjoying.

Director:** Chris Smith
Released:* 1999
Empire Rating:*

One certain way to craft a tragic film – at least as far as film fans are concerned – is to make a ‘making of’ for a project that itself never saw the light of day. Just ask Terry Gilliam, whose The Man Who Killed Don Quixote vanished in an avalanche of minor disasters while the ‘making of’ was turned into Lost In La Mancha and released to considerable acclaim.

American Movie falls into the same category, but Chris Smith’s tale of lovable but very unlucky would-be horror filmmaker Mark Borchardt gives you plenty of laughs alongside the heartbreak. In fact, his story of disaster after calamity after catastrophe during the production of his black and white horror short, Coven, somehow makes not for depressing viewing, but the complete opposite. His innate talent helps, as does his absurdly funny motley crew of friends – especially the dim-witted Schank – giving viewers a making-of-the-movie movie like no other. Truly, utterly, supremely entertaining – and it barely cost a thing.

Directors:** John Heyn and Jeff Krulik
Released:* 1986

Do you know what a “tailgate party” is? If you’re not from America, chances are you don’t, so here’s the lowdown: a tailgate party is a party you have on or around the tailgate of your car, preferably involving several carloads of people and accompanying tailgates. It normally happens in car parks before American Football games, or in the case of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, before large-scale music gigs.

Judas Priest were the guys coming to town for Heavy Metal Parking Lot, and it’s their fans that director Jeff Krulik recorded outside the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland on May 31, 1986. Much-loved by the likes of Nirvana and Lady Gaga, this 17-minute documentary short has since inspired video efforts by the Backstreet Boys, Less Than Jake and American Hi-Fi, but don't hold that against it. All in all it’s an affectionate insight into the obsessive world of heavy metal fandom, all topless chests and bad tattoos, frizzy perms and bad teeth – and so remains one of the funniest and, well, most real music docs ever made.

Director: Errol Morris
Released: 1997

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is not, you may be glad to know, a film about demolition derby, nor one about ladettes on the rampage. Documentary maker Errol Morris, the man behind acclaimed efforts The Fog Of War and The Thin Blue Line, has rather more substantive interests. Named after a science paper written by one of the film’s four subjects – "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System" by Rodney Brooks – it’s a cleverly constructed layering of four interviews with four different men to give a view of, well, everything.

There’s Dave Hoover, a lion tamer; George Mendonça, a topiary gardener; Ray Mendez, a hairless mole-rats expert; and as previously mentioned, Rodney Brooks, an M.I.T. robotics scientist. Using a clever camera technique Morris calls the “Interrotron”, the interviews have a personal, revealing feel as the interviewees stare directly into the camera. Mixing reportage footage with B-movie clips, talking head interviews and the subject matter at hand, it’s a glorious, eye-opening, almost philosophical treatise on the nature of work, life, and, well, what it is to… be. It’s deep, man – and yet surprisingly approachable. Intrigued? You should be.

Directors: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Released:** 2004
Empire Rating:*

Ever wanted to see the world’s biggest rock band fall apart before your very eyes? Then buy yourself a copy of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and you can watch bassist Jason Newsted quit, singer James Hetfield check into rehab and drummer Lars Ulrich’s attempt to wage war with music piracy giant Napster. Oh, and they’re all supposedly there to make an album together, something that would eventually become 2003’s St. Anger.

You definitely don’t need to be a Metallica fan to enjoy this film, with each and every character – sorry, member of the band – laying their emotions out there in frank and occasionally quite uncomfortable interviews and therapy-style coaching sessions. Still, somehow their humanity is maintained – or rather enhanced – and despite their obvious flaws, Metallica remain gods in their fans’ eyes. Angry gods, sure, but gods nonetheless.

Director: Asif Kapadia
Released: 2011
Empire Rating:

Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna was a prodigious talent and arguably the finest racing driver the world has ever seen. But after a tempestuous career that saw him clash with his McLaren teammate Alain Prost, butt heads with the FIA boss Jean-Marie Balestre and win the championship three times, he tragically died at the age of 34 in a crash at the 1994 the San Marino Grand Prix.

Having done so much in such a short period of time, it was a daunting task to do Senna’s whole life justice in an hour and a half, but somehow Kapadia pulls it off, avoiding talking heads interviews and concentrating on a mixture of contemporary television footage and new commentary, carefully and cleverly crafting a film that will stay with you for a long, long time. You don’t have to be a racing fan to get something out of it, either: this is for those fascinated by extraordinary people, not about driving cars around in circuits.

Director: Banksy
Released:** 2010
Empire Rating:*

If you’re looking to discover the real identity of the infamous street artist known as “Banksy”, this isn’t the documentary you’re looking for – though it is the closest anyone’s going to get to entering the world of the reclusive spray-can wielder any time soon.

Rather than tell the mysterious tale of Banksy himself, the movie is about “Mr. Brainwash”, a nutty wannabe documentary maker who managed to wangle his way into Banksy’s exclusive orbit before it emerged that the so-called documentary he was planning was in fact a pile of unwatched tapes rotting in a shed. Known at the time by his real name, Thierry Guetta, he is then encouraged by Banksy to make his own art – and suddenly, shockingly, the soulless artistic invention that is Mr. Brainwash was born. Constantly asking you to question its authenticity, it’s still up for debate whether this is a documentary or a mockmentary, but whatever it is, it’s a fascinating film about an extraordinary person – though it may not make you want to buy any high price art any time soon…

Director:** S.R. Binder
Released:* 1997

This is a documentary about an endurance competition that took place in Longview, Texas, back in 1995. The endurance competition in question was an old fashioned hands-on-the-truck-in-order-to-win-it number – and one that’s far more interesting that it sounds.

Exploring the mental and physical preparations required to spend 77 hours touching a truck – without squatting, leaning or sleeping, with only five minute breaks every hour and fifteen minute breaks every six hours – it’s a jaw-dropping insight into what people will do for a free car. As you’d expect, each and every contestant is what polite members of society would call “a character” but they’re all lovable in their own totally bonkers way. It’s worth watching to see who wins the thing – and to find out what they plan on doing with it. Hint: it’s not selling it.

Director: Sacha Gervasi
Released: 2009
Empire Rating:

Imagine that you were a member of the hard rock band that inspired Metallica, Anthrax and Guns N’ Roses. Imagine that, despite being hugely influential, no-one knew who you were, and no-one came to your gigs. Welcome to the weird, worrying and sometimes wonderful world of Anvil! – the greatest speed metal band you’ve never heard of.

With a European tour that reminds you more than a few times of This Is Spinal Tap – cock-up after cock-up, empty gigs after empty gigs – it’s not always a barrel of laughs by any means, but Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner are such amazing people, so dedicated to their dream of rocking out and still so optimistic that it’s all going to work out that you’ll be rooting for them hard by the end – even if you can’t stand their genre of music. A brilliant testimonial to never giving up, it’s an insightful, glorious movie that takes the rockumentary and yes, we’re going there, turns it up to 11.