For many people, the word "documentary" has the same connotation as the word "educational," signaling that what's to come might be useful but it probably will not be enjoyable. Unfortunately, this is true often enough with documentaries that it gives the lighter, more entertaining docs a bad name.
Chris Rock's new documentary, Good Hair, opening in select cities this week, is a prime example of a film so delightful that it hardly seems fair to saddle it with the stodgy-sounding label "documentary." It's about African American culture's obsession with hair, and how it permeates nearly every aspect of black life -- much more so than you might realize if you're not black, or if you're not a hairstylist specializing in black hair. The film is funny, enlightening, and ultimately a little thought-provoking, too, as Rock examines the sociological reasons for desiring "good hair." But mostly it's just fun.
In honor of that, here are some other documentaries that might be educational or informative or practical but that are, above all else, fun to watch. All of them are on DVD and available through the usual means, including Netflix. We've even arranged them into handy double features!
The Natural History of the Chicken and March of the Penguins. You might have seen March of the Penguins, which was a box office success a few years ago and tells an exciting tale of Antarctic love, mating, and parenting. You probably have not seen The Natural History of the Chicken, though, a PBS documentary that's all about people's affection for chickens as pets. It's tongue-in-cheek, but not condescending toward the slightly loony people it depicts.
F**k: A Documentary and The Aristocrats. The former is a documentary about a certain swear word: its history (no, it's not an acronym, despite whatever urban legend you may have heard), its usage, and the legal battles some entertainers have faced for saying it. The latter is about a particular filthy joke that stand-up comedians tell each other, one that involves a great deal of improvisation, like a jazz riff. Not only are the dozens of comedians they interview very funny, but we learn about the mechanics of comedy, too: how to construct a joke, and why things make us laugh.
Go Tigers! and Through the Fire. The town in Friday Night Lights has nothing on the town of Massillon, Ohio, whose insane enthusiasm for high school football is the focus of Go Tigers!. It has great sports footage, some colorful characters, and a terrific insight into the mind of a Midwestern football town. Through the Fire, meanwhile, is a robust, thrilling doc about Sebastian Telfair, who went straight from high school into the NBA in 2004. The filmmaker was with him throughout the process, and it's a compelling story.
Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom. But never mind the jocks. What about the nerds? Spellbound chronicles the ups and downs of a National Spelling Bee championship, and by the time it's over you may be astonished by how invested you feel in the outcome. Mad Hot Ballroom follows an inner-city junior-high ballroom dance class through a similar trajectory, leading up to a championship competition. Both films are as exciting as any fictional sports film.
The Kid Stays in the Picture and This Film Is Not Yet Rated. What do filmmakers love more than movies about making films? Nothing! The Kid takes the stories and anecdotes of Robert Evans -- one of the most colorful and prolific film producers of the 1970s -- and spins them into an outrageous and funny doc about the behind-the-scenes chaos of Hollywood. It's a must-see for movie buffs. And if you're not already annoyed by the inconsistency of the MPAA's movie rating system, wait till you see This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which shows just how corrupt and useless the whole thing is in a most eye-opening fashion.
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Eric D. Snider (website) is based on a true story.