The word "documentary" will elicit a groan from pretty much everyone. It feels so "Will there be a quiz on this?" even despite the fact that school has been in your rearview mirror for years. But they've actually come a long way, and documentarians have come to accept the fact that not all of them need to be focused on some corner of the globe with a name no one can pronounce, where some animal crisis is taking place, as all us Americans happily go about our blockbuster-loving business, oblivious to it all. Here are six docs not like that, and every dude should see them.
1. Hoop Dreams: This is probably exactly where the tide began to turn regarding documentaries. Hell, you didn't even need to be a fan of the game to enjoy this gem from 1994, which was initially just going to be a short film. But there was just no turning off the camera when it came to two Chicago high school students and their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. The boys get recruited to play for a predominantly white school with an outstanding basketball program, and go on to chase said dreams, which now necessitate 90-minute commutes to school, hardcore practices and a new social environment decidedly different than the one they came up in. The award-winning doc shows what it really takes to chase dreams—and that it can get ugly.
2. History of the Eagles: This epic—as in so sprawling it plays out as a two-parter— documentary is like an episode of Behind the Music on steroids. Again, you need not even be a fan of the subject matter. But if you love the Eagles, from the California band's early years, their decadent late '70s successful ones, or post-breakup reunion years, it's all present and accounted for. What's more: Each member has an axe to grind and doesn't let the fact that a camera is rolling interfere with doing so. Honest, at times brutally so, and cathartic, you come away kinda shocked that these are the guys who had a hit with Take It Easy.
3. Super Size Me: Look, nobody wants to talk shit about McDonald's. It's un-American. But filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's doc dedicated to his going 30 days eating Mickey D's and only Mickey D's is can't-look-away stuff. The word engrossing works on so many levels, as Spurlock goes from spry, preening New Yorker to slow-moving, sluggish slacker. It all starts with a visit to three—count 'em three—physicians, all of whom sign off on his physical well-being. What's more: They sing the praises of the human body being "extremely adaptable," amused at what he describes as the "McDiet" he'll be going on. What it does to him in 30 days is eye-opening.
4. The Decline of Western Civilization: This one's a must for rock 'n roll fans, if not for everyone really. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, who went on to direct huge studio projects like Wayne's World, this sucker is actually a trilogy, and the second installment (The Metal Years) is straight-up stunning. You'd think you were watching Spinal Tap, but, no, it's honest to goodness rock musicians chugging vodka in swimming pools at 3 am while their mother talks about them "always being prone to mischief" from patio furniture just a few feet away. The concert footage of bands like KISS, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne and more, does little to lessen the impact of the interview portions, where famous (and decidedly not famous) rockers stumble about, drug-addled and witless. KISS frontman Paul Stanley probably comes off the best, and that's only because he demanded his interview be conducted while in bed, where he is joined by a gaggle of gorgeous, scantily-clad women.
5. When We Were Kings: Winning no less than an Academy Award in 1996, Kings examines the legendary "Rumble in Jungle"—easily the biggest fight ever (apologies to Mayweather/McGregor enthusiasts). The Muhammad Ali/George Foreman bout went down in 1974, but filmmaker Leon Gast manages to snag comments not only from the two fighters, but also from James Brown, Norman Mailer, B.B. King and all the way up to Spike Lee. The doc manages to show the days leading up to the fight, Ali's celebrity status with the people of Zaire, where the fight took place, and Foreman's struggle to build up his own profile in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The fight footage, it should go without saying, is compelling, and the aftermath is the stuff of history books. It took Gast 22 years to edit this thing.