The finished film that we see on a screen is only part of the story of a movie. Behind the scenes, there may have been a saga of infighting, clashes between creatives and the dreaded money men, production woes and fights and compromises over passionate visions. Once viewed, the film’s influence may have stretched far beyond the seats of the cinema, inspiring a life changing switch of attitude in the individual or in society itself. While the film itself rather than sitting alone, finds itself as part of a wider story of the career of a director, studio, genre, era or even a movement of social upheaval.
What I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is films are interesting, so interesting that people made documentaries about them. But I’m not talking about dull, sit down interviews with directors espousing arty philosophies and citing works of inspiration we’ve never seen, read or even heard of. I’m meaning exciting, vibrant works of passion that celebrates the rebellious, the weird and the underground of cinema and the maverick makers and fans residing on the fringes of the industry.
What follows are some of the documentaries which I’ve enjoyed and are definitely worth checking out.
Electric Boogaloo: The wild, Untold Story of Canon Films
If you were a patron of VHS rental stores in the 80’s chances are you rented out at least one movie from the infamous Canon Films. The group specialised in low budget action films, churning out at their peak 43 films in a year, invariably starring Chuck Norris, Dolph Lungren or Charles Bronson.
Electric Boogaloo chronicles the rise and fall of Canon, how two cousins found a niche in the VHS market for quick and cheap movies, but ultimately were doomed to implode just as fast. There are hilarious and wild stories of the the crazy productions from many who starred in it, as well as what went wrong when Canon acquired properties such as Masters if the Universe and Superman , resulting in the infamous Quest for Peace.
Chuck Norris vs Communism
Chuck Norris vs Communism is a seemingly little known Netflix documentary which really puts into perspective the importance and potential of movies for subversive viewing. It reveals the black market of video tapes of American Movies in 70’s and 80’s Romania, which were banned by the Communist dictatorship.
Risking arrest, neighbours would gather for clandestine screenings in each others homes, with jingoistic American action films being a big favourite and much sort after for portraying Soviets as the villains. But while Chuck Norris was very much demand, the real star appears to have been a young woman who’s voice became recognisable to fans as she dubbed the movies and voicing all the roles.
It’s an inspiring, but somewhat humbling story of the lengths oppressed people will go to, just to enjoy entertainment that we all too often take for granted.
Raiders: The Story of the Greatest Fanfilm Ever Made
While short fan films of varying quality rain upon youtube every day, none have the bastshit crazy ambition of what three kids had back in the early 80s. After seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark, the three were so inspired they decided to remake the film shot for shot. Seven years they worked on the passion project, overcoming the various problems of recreating the stunts and special effects, while having to accept that the ages of the cast would jump back and forth from scene to scene.
However the one scene they were never able to complete was the spectacular sequence where Indy and Marian attempt to hijack a Nazi plane, ending in a massive explosion. Thirty Five years later the friends reunite for an expensive and complicated shoot to finally finish off their movie.
Raiders focuses on the attempt to film the plane sequence, while investigating the history of the project and the effect it had on their friendships as they grew older and inevitably drifted apart. The passion and joys of fandom are celebrated, but there is also a underlying tone of the dangers of allowing that to slip into a harmful obsession.
Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
Roger Corman is an enigma in Hollywood. A director and producer who’s output was mainly exploitation and cheap B-Movies, but who was highly respected and gave many Hollywood greats their first break. Scorsese, Nicholson, De Nero, are just some of the names who owe Corman thanks and are amongst the interviewees in this documentary which covers the work of one of the more interesting figures in the movie industry.
At ninety minutes you can’t help but think that Corman’s over fifty years in movies is going to be under served. While another half hour would have been welcome, the documentary covers all the eras of hammer horror style, biker movies, exploitation and the cult sci fi favourites such as Death Race 2000, Piranha and Battle Beyond the Stars. There are lively anecdotes about Corman’s budget saving techniques (reusing special effects footage is a common Corman trope) and genuine warmth from a variety of stars.
Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s the Fantastic Four
Speaking of Corman, one of the most infamous films that he was involved (though probably not to the extent that the title of this doc would suggest) was the unreleased Fantastic Four film of 1994 and the subject of the documentary Doomed.
In what would have been the Fantastic Four’s big screen debut, this cheapy was rushed together in order for producer Bernard Eichner to retain the rights with the intention of making a big budget version further down the road. Despite a press tour, trailer and planned 1993 release date the film was pulled with the intention of it never been seen again. However illegal bootleg copies of the full film mysteriously started showing up at comic conventions (my first encounter with the film was a tape with a full cover in 1995) and it soon became an underground, cult curiosity.
The accepted narrative for years has been that Fantastic Four film was never actually meant to be released, something that was kept hidden from the director, cast and production team. However Doomed at least opens the possibility that the story is more complicated and a release of some sorts may have been intended (there are contradictions from the various interviewees and you get the impression that the 100% real is never going to be known or sure), certainly the how and why the film was finally pulled and who ended up with it was something of a twist for me.
Doomed is a fascinating story of studio machinatings and an unfortunate cast, all of whom feature in the documentary, caught up in the aftermath. There are sad moments where it’s clear those involved felt this was a great opportunity and really put their heart into working with what they had.
Yet despite the hurt and bewilderment the cast went through, it still proves uplifting when incredibly the film actually found an audience (the cast’s stories of how they came to know the film was doing the rounds is gleefully satisfying). Doomed also possibly solves the mystery of when and how the film managed to escape destruction and leaked out to comic convention freedom.
Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Doctor Moreuo
Less feelgood is this exploration of the making of The Island of Doctor Moreau, which is one of the most insane all time car crashes of a production. The 1996 film was meant to be the dream project of up and coming director Richard Stanley but soon production spiralled out of control and Stanley was fired less than a week into shooting, leading to him wandering off into the jungle.
Lost Soul extensively follows every step of the film, from Stanley’s early concepts and vision to the various casting changes and the ultimate chaos that reigned once shooting commenced. Already a potentially complicated shoot, the involvement of ego maniacs Marlon Brando and Val Kilmner created an unreal atmosphere with the two seemingly o be intent to outdo each other for diva and outright bizzare behaviour (the two refusing to come out of their trailers until the other had is jawdroppingly pettiness).
It’s an astounding documentary on everything that could possibly go wrong with the making of a film.
This Film is Not Yet Rated
“This film is not yet rated” covers a subject that most audiences probably accept without question, but affects their movie going experience more than they’ll ever realise. The MPAA awards movies their classification rating and has the power to sink a film, but as the documentary shows their judging can be contradictory and ambiguous from one film to the next.
As well as speaking to film makers about their personal experiences with the MPAA, highlighting their biases (sex scenes featuring homosexuality and female orgasms are shown to be treated more strictly for example) the producers attempt to track down the actual members and brings into question their actual qualifications to wield such responsibility.
A spectacular documentary this subject may not make, but it’s a fascinating one and should cause much to ponder for film fans and what they are allowed to watch
Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy
I’m always wary of documentaries about big movies, especially when made by the studios who own the properties. However Empire of Dreams which retells the creation of the original Star Wars Trilogy, is far from being the dreaded puff piece and probably the most informative and in depth look into the Star Wars saga.
Made back in 2004 as a bonus for the release of the DVD boxset (and while the prequel trilogy was still going on), the documentary features all the main cast in very candid interviews. It’s around the production of New Hope that the revelations are more most interesting, in particular the difficulties of working with the shy George Lucas and the general feeling that non of the cast really had any clue of quite what they were making.
What’s really fascinating is the amount of production footage that got unearthed and dusted off from the vaults. There are recordings from the auditions, with Kurt Russell amongst the hopefuls reading for Han Solo and Mark Hamill absolutely killing it. Meanwhile there are clips of raw production footage which look astonishingly bad, testament to how much magic actually goes into the editing and post production process.
Empire of Dreams is the definitive account of the making of the trilogy, full of anecdotes, some funny, others bewildering in hindsight (it’s clear the bosses were not enamoured with Lucas’s space story, especially whenhe went behind on schedule). This is must see viewing for any Star Wars fan.
That’s all from me, if you check out and enjoy any of my recommendations please let me know on twitter at @dazzalovesmovie.
Take care, stay calm and stay safe.