CATEGORIES Comedy, Documentary, Independent, Michael Moore, George Clooney, Columns, Cinematical Indie, Columns, Cinematical
Have you seen Chris Rock's Good Hair yet? Sorry, that's Jeff Stilson's Good Hair. Have you seen it yet? If so, was it because you're really interested in the subject of black women's hair? Or, was it because you knew with Rock hosting and guiding us through the documentary that it'd be at least a funny movie? I finally caught up with Good Hair, which was released to DVD last month, and I can honestly say that I wouldn't have bothered with it had Rock not been involved so prominently. The funny thing is, though, the film isn't as hilarious as I had hoped -- yet I came away from it gladly informed about such things as relaxer, weaves and the fact Nia Long prefers to be on top during sex so as not to disturb her hair.
Scott had a similar reaction when he reviewed the film from Sundance a year ago. Though he acknowledged that he mainly saw this doc he'd otherwise "have little to no interest in" because it was a requisite of his festival coverage, he also had this to say about the film's star: "I suspect that the subject matter would still be fairly interesting without Rock's involvement, but the comedian brings a accessibility to the material that no amount of facts and figures can replace."
I think the key, though, is that the accessibility is not because Rock is a familiar face so much as a funnyman. If all it took was a celebrity to make a documentary appeal to audiences who don't normally watch non-fiction films, bigger box office draws than Rock, such as Leonardo DiCaprio (his voice anyway) and George Clooney, would bring outsiders into films like The 11th Hour and Darfur Now, respectively. Perhaps you could argue there is a matter of subject matter, as the topic of black women's hair is much lighter than global warming and the crisis in Darfur.
But on the other end of the spectrum, I know tons of people -- pot smokers and non -- who saw Super High Me because it's a funny documentary starring a comedian (Doug Benson, who I personally wasn't familiar with beforehand). Same goes for the film that inspired it, Super Size Me. Anyone could have highlighted their experiment with fast food for a serious exploration of the health risks. But fortunately Morgan Spurlock is a humorous guy, therefore more people see his movie who wouldn't typically go see a documentary in a theater, and it grosses nearly three times as much at the box office as a more serious food industry film like Food, Inc.
Both of those films received Oscar nominations, though, which is pretty interesting. The Academy Awards are constantly criticized for being unkind to comedy, but a well-made comedic documentary has as much of a chance as any other. As long as it still deals with an issue -- Super Size Me addressed the obesity epidemic, whereas even if it were a better film, Good Hair wouldn't likely be nominated due to its lighter topic (had Stilson and Rock focused on any deaths or life-altering injury related to relaxers -- especially involving children -- they might have had a better shot).
Likewise, Michael Moore doesn't get recognized for his films about book and college tours; he gets nominated for films about gun control and health care. And as a former huge fan of Moore's work, I'll admit that it was his humor that drew me into his films, not the issues. And not just on the big screen. Just as many of us prefer to get our news through a comedic outlet like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I enjoyed TV Nation because it dealt with stuff in a humorous and sometimes absurdist manner. Unfortunately, his movies have become more known for their politics and rabble-rousing than their entertainment value.
Looking at the top 20 highest grossing documentaries of all time, about half of them are comedies. Of course, most of them are also Moore's films and I'm also counting films that aren't necessarily considered comedies yet have a lot of funny moments like Spellbound (Good Hair nearly made the cut at #23). But I guess it wasn't always a given that comedic docs could be any more popular than other non-fiction films. Otherwise The Last Party, which features Robert Downey Jr. on screen covering the 1992 presidential race, might have been more successful (a sequel was made in 2000 by Donovan, of all people, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, also to little notice). It can't be that these were too political could it? Or is only Moore allowed to be profitable with that sort of humorous documentary? Al Franken: God Spoke was hilarious and it didn't make any money either.
The mother of all funny documentaries, in my opinion, is The Aristocrats, which is simply a bunch of comedians telling the same joke while also exploring the very concept of comedy in the process. Films dealing with the dissection of funny aren't normally so funny themselves. And I've seen some depressing films about comedians, both non-fiction (Comedian) fiction (Puchline), which is why I actually didn't immediately see that one. But I've probably never laughed more in any kind of movie (there are others who can't say the same, unfortunately).
As for films I've seen because I heard they were hilarious, these include American Movie, Trekkies and Block Party, which is a sort of concert film that's hosted by a comedian. But I'm not very big on concert films, and it helped to have the accessibility of a guy like Dave Chappelle doing the hosting duties on screen. On the other hand, I've avoided Religulous because I'm not that amused by Bill Maher anymore. And yes, I'm going to get to Anvil! primarily for its humor one of these days. I promise.
What's the funniest documentary you've ever seen? And does it help a documentary and the issue it's addressing if it can make you laugh at least a little?