A great documentary has the power to motivate the viewer. Sometimes we’re motivated to learn more, like in any of Ken Burns‘ long-form documentaries. Other times, we’re motivated to want to do something about the world around us, like in 2004’s Born into Brothels. Then there are times when a documentary, like a good narrative, simply motivates us, urges us to create. It can help us to see other brilliant artists at their best and at their worst to help us put our own artistic struggles in perspective. Even the best narrative film about an artist, like the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, can make a meal out of life’s tragedies, but can forget the fat and gristle like the small failures, when sometimes that’s exactly what we need to see. A good documentarian can find those moments of struggle and sublime waves of creative inspiration, because they are there, and serve them up to us, reminding us why we need to create.
Here are six documentaries bound to help you remember what you love about making things.
Beauty is Embarrassing (2012)
Wayne White is the underground surreal artist responsible for much of the look of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the Smashing Pumpkins video Tonight, Tonight. Beauty is Embarrassing catches this surly, southern ball of pure creative energy as he embarks on a tour of his art across the country. Director Neil Berkeley follows him through the tour, and also stands back and allows us to watch White create giant cardboard sculptures, seemingly straight from his brain. We also get to watch White turn his story of becoming a popular painter into a stage show with music and comedy; this film covers the weird reality of art – sometimes you do a bit of everything to satisfy those needs. It’s a life story and an examination of a life lived purely in service of one’s artistic whims, and it will remind you to fill the empty spaces in your own life with art.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself (2013)
Feeling inadequate was never so enjoyable. Watching erudite author George Plimpton play professional football, walk a high wire, try out professional boxing, and publish a periodical that never turned a profit will make you wonder what you’re really doing in your spare time. You might also wonder how your life would be different with all of Plimpton’s money, but despite the silver spoon, he lives with aplomb, which is something any artist can aspire to. While some of the most riveting documentaries about creatives thrive on following that artist around, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself manages to do this using a great deal of stock footage, relying heavily on enumerating the many things accomplished by the ultimate jack of all trades.
Bathtubs Over Broadway (2018)
The story of former Late Show with David Letterman writer Steve Young doesn’t start off hopeful, or even with that much energy. It’s an intentionally slow burn, watching Young discover a fascination with corporate-produced musicals and the vinyl soundtrack records they spawned. It starts off as just a joke to him, which is understandable. How else is he supposed to feel about a song called “Silicones, Silicones,” or another one with the lyric “I loved my hysterectomy?” Certainly, a lot of these songs are incredibly goofy, but, by the end, he discovers – whether he admits it to himself or not – that he’s found something he can have sincere feelings about. Dava Whisenant, a former editor at Letterman, does justice to the idea of loving something just for the sake of it, as the scenes grow lighter and lighter in tone, with a finale that any musical fan shouldn’t miss. Bathtubs Over Broadway should remind you to take yourself less seriously, even if you’re serious about your art.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
You’d be perfectly right to question every frame of Exit Through the Gift Shop but, like with any piece of Banksy art, it’s a matter of letting yourself get sucked in, or not bothering, and just enjoying the ride as a piece of art. The story of a man whom Banksy allowed to tag along on some of his guerrilla art in LA, video artist Thierry Guetta, leaks into what might have been a story about Banksy. There’s also a chance it was never really supposed to be about Banksy. If it was, Banksy artfully breaks every rule about interfering with his subject. Guetta eventually decides he wants to try visual art, and to have a team to help him out; Banksy reluctantly gives him advice and assistance. This all culminates in Guetta’s a giant, overblown art installation in Los Angeles, which comes across as the soulless creations of a shallow artist. Unless the artist is the art. Is Guetta as a person a creation of Banksy, or is Guetta’s burgeoning art career the creation? Do any of us have control, or is money the deciding factor in all artistic success? Banksy successfully asks zero questions and provides zero answers, or at the very least makes it look that way. Nothing like an art film that makes you question what you want out of art.
Mercury 13 (2018)
At first glance, a film about qualified pilots training for space travel and then being denied any chance to go into space might seem neither inspirational nor creative, at first glance. David Sington manages to tell the story of these women, in their own words, in a way that emphasizes not just large-scale rejection, but recovery. All of them continued to deal with sexism throughout their lives, of course, but watching these undeniably skilled women come out from under the weight of low expectations is something spectacular. They overcome a crushed dream, together, all to move on to equally magnificent – if less public – accomplishments. Any artist who needs a story of resilience over unmatchable odds will find it in Mercury 13.
Art and Craft (2014)
True crime tends to be grim, dark, and obsessed with the lives of violent criminals. Perhaps the only true-crime film worth its salt, Art and Craft is the story of a non-violent crime that took genuine skill to pull off. Cullman and Grausman deftly tell the story of Mark Landis, a hugely-successful painting forger who takes no money for his works. Instead, his “grift” involves getting museums to put his forgeries on display, as recently-discovered examples of classics. While the exploration of Landis’s life can, at times, seem to be portraying his life as a sad, obsessive one, it would be impossible to ignore his output. Landis’s attention to detail jibes perfectly with a lonely life – if it is, indeed, lonely – and with no real victims to speak of, it’s almost impossible to not be charmed by him and his need to copy the classics. If you want to know what pure, compulsive creativity looks like, there’s no better documentary for that than Art and Craft.