The documentary has greatly evolved from its humble beginnings in educational and travel films. During the last hundred years the genre has played a key role in revolutionizing filmmaking as a whole. They have been used as tools of propaganda, observation, and a means to study many aspects of the world big and small.
Documentarians range from Leni Riefenstahl and her impressive cinematic feats, to direct cinema pioneer Richard Leacock and his powerful hand-shot narratives. Regardless of the subject or content, style or agenda, what constitutes as a great documentary is that at its core is a great film.
Filmmaking and storytelling aside, the agenda of teaching or studying as opposed to pure entertainment value leaves many to think documentaries are pretentious or boring. Documentarians have trouble getting funding, finding distribution, and when released they often find their work unleashed to an apathetic public. This attitude leaves many great films getting shuffled off into the abyss. For that reason, what constitutes as lost, forgotten or obscure is vague.
This is a genre where success is often measured by only achieving a theatrical release or getting airtime on public funded television as opposed to box office revenue. Some films listed here were successful, some banned, others never had a proper release, some are cult favorites, and others are shorts lost to the past. Regardless of the reason for their inclusion, each film deserves a far larger audience.
In no particular order, here are 25 lost, obscure or forgotten documentaries worth your time.
1. Cocksucker Blues (Robert Frank, 1972)
Warning: there are graphic scenes of drug use and sex that may be offensive. Legendary photographer Robert Frank (Americans) was given carte blanche by Mick and co, as were the Maysles during what became Gimme Shelter. With no conclusion of a Hell’s Angels stabbing or a graphic depiction of the sixties coming to a violent end, what’s left is a record of the Stones’ decadent drug fueled 1972 American tour.
Shot in black and white with a blue hazy tone that has become grainier and more worn as each generation of bootlegs pass. Cocksucker Blues is an exposé of the banality of tour life: sex, drugs and hanging out. Tedious and slow, but its minutia achieves the ennui of touring life. The few performances used show The Stones at the height of their powers during the Mick Taylor years.
The clips even include opening act Stevie Wonder with his band jamming out “Uptight” and “Satisfaction” with The Stones. Possibly more infamous for the injunctions brought against its release by The Rolling Stones than the film itself. If a concert film is more to your tastes, check out the officially sanctioned Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones from the same tour. Every so often a worn copy appears on Youtube.
2. Marjoe (Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan, 1972)
1972 was a hell of a year for documentaries. Two of the films listed here, Manson and Marjoe, were nominated for Best Documentary at the 1973 Academy Awards, with Marjoe winning.
The film tells the story child evangelist Marjoe Gortner (a combination of Mary and Joseph). After spending a childhood manipulated by Pentecostal Revivalist parents, he finds his conscience at odds with the world of evangelical Christianity.
Deciding this will be his last tour, Marjoe invited the directors to cover the inside world of traveling preachers in the days before the electric church and massive televangelism. Working as both a biography and exposé, the film is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Charismatic Christianity movement that led to the modern day super churches.
3. Manson (Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick, 1972)
Opening with a monologue that features Sandra Good claiming: “when somebody needs to be killed, there’s no wrong, you do it,” Manson is an ominous peek inside Charles Manson and his “Family.” Taking place after Manson and the Tate-LaBianca killers had been arrested, co-director Hendrickson spent two years living with the “Family.”
During that time he collected interviews with both former and, at the time, current “Family” members and acquaintances to bring some understanding to the crimes and Manson himself.
Though it contains an exploitive style retelling of the crimes, the interviews create a fascinating insight to Manson and his followers that is unavailable anywhere else. After many years of promising to release the unused footage he collected, Hendrickson finally released the disappointing Inside the Manson Gang in 2007.
4. Heavy Metal Parking Lot (Jeff Krulik and John Heyn 1986)
Heavy Metal Parking Lot is a D.I.Y. curio filmed by two amateur filmmakers that chronicles the Metal subculture as it was, in the parking lot of the Capitol Centre in Landover, Maryland, May 31, 1986.
Made up of interviews with fans waiting to see Judas Priest, it is a frank but generally comical look at the culture of what was at the time, one of the most popular musical genres in the world. Featuring over-the-top interviewees—including cult favorites “Zebraman” and Graham, “like gram of dope and shit”— Heavy Metal Parking Lot has incurred a large cult following including Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl.
5. God’s Angry Man (Werner Herzog, 1981)
Any number of Herzog’s documentaries could claim a spot on this list, but God’s Angry Man has been one of his most elusive. Telling the story of the controversial televangelist Dr. Gene Scott, whose rant driven style made him a cult figure in the late seventies and early eighties. God’s Angry Man was made for German TV, so the documentary has never had a proper North American release, but is now available on YouTube.
As with most of Herzog’s subjects, Scott is an alienated character trying to make his way in a world that doesn’t want or need him. Even within a group outsiders who sell faith via late night television in the eighties, he was travelling a path all his own. Watching the sheer audacity of Scott in action alone makes this worth seeking out, even if you are unable to understand Herzog’s German narration. Currently streaming on YouTube with or without Herzog’s narration.
6. Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000)
Without any prior experience and, enlisting his subjects to aid in its production, first-time filmmaker Marc Singer created a poetic and haunting vision of NYC’s homeless problem. Dark Days relates the stories and lives of several homeless people living in abandoned NYC subway tunnels.
Through making the film, Singer sought to use it as a means to financially assist the subjects upon its release. His friendship with those featured does give the film a more personal style than direct cinema, but it isn’t hampered by this. Singer doesn’t intrude in the work as someone like a Michael Moore.
Featuring a great score by DJ Shadow, its shot using an underlit black and white 16mm that captures the humanity and resilience of its subjects without becoming maudlin.
7. Raw Deal: A Question of Consent (Billy Corben, 2001)
Raw Deal concerns the question of what is and isn’t consensual sex. It presents the aftermath of an exotic dancer, who after being hired for a frat party, reports she’s been raped. Two days later she faces a charge of filing a false arrest. Standing at the center of the case is a video of the alleged rape recorded by one of the participants. The State Attorney claims the sex appears consensual and not only doesn’t do an investigation, but decides to release the tape to the public.
Using explicit footage from the video and interviews from both the victim and the participant who videotaped the alleged rape, Corben doesn’t try to answer the question of consent, but rather scrutinizes the politics around rape and sexualized violence.
8. The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris, 1981)
The first wave of punk inspired some great D.I.Y. punk docs: D.O.A. by Lech Kowalski, The Punk Rock Movie by Don Letts and The Blank Generation by Amos Poe and Ivan Krahl, but only The Decline of Western Civilization can stand on its own beside The Filth and The Fury, Gimme Shelter or Don’t Look Back.
Taking place over 1979 and 1980, there is a mix of fan and band interviews cut in between incendiary performances capturing this brief but highly influential era of punk. With a miniscule budget, Spheeris relates the stark raw aggression of the early L.A. punk scene as it is being infiltrated by hardcore and the violence that would be associated with the 80s L.A. and O.C. scenes.
The music may not pique the interest of all viewers, but Spheeris carefully crafted a film that can that be in held in the same esteem as anything done by elders such as D.A. Pennebaker.
Spheeris eventually made a Decline of Western Civilization trilogy. The second, The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years chronicles the LA hair metal scene of the early to mid-eighties and is the best known of all three. The Decline of Western Civilization III appeared in 1998 and focuses on the gutter/crust punk movement.