Have you heard? 2004 was the "year of the documentary." Never mind that the phenomenal box office success of Fahrenheit 9/11 didn't spill over to worthy titles such as Control Room, or that folks said the same thing about 2003; the important thing is that newspaper columnists had something to write about for a couple of weeks. But any public perception that makes companies more likely to distribute docs is a good thing.
Happily, the home video world is saturated with non-fiction films. One of the leaders in the field, the Docurama label, is about to release a whopper: The Docurama Awards Collection is a 12-title box showcasing films that have either won or been nominated for Academy Awards. At just under $200, it's not cheap - but considering that these discs all retail for $25 or $30 individually, it's a good value for anyone looking to build a serious collection. (Do we have any librarians in the house?)
Highlighting Oscar-endorsed titles eliminates some of the label's finest films (Brother's Keeper and Dont Look Back `sic`, for instance). The Academy is notorious for missing classic docs, but plenty of great stuff makes it in.
Take Genghis Blues, a nearly un-categorizable film about Paul Pena, who wrote a hit song for the Steve Miller Band and then faded from view. A blind man with some debilitating mental health issues, Pena became obsessed with a sound he heard briefly, decades ago, on the radio: Tuvan throat singing, an ancient art in which a vocalist can sustain multiple tones at once. Working from memory, Pena eventually taught himself how to do it; Blues chronicles the amazing pilgrimage he made to meet the style's inventors.
Sticking with disabilities, Sound and Fury revolves around an issue that sounds crazy to anyone not affected: that parents of a deaf child might reject a surgery that would allow the child to hear. As the film shows, many deaf people feel threatened by such new techniques, worrying that their culture - their language, customs, and sense of identity - could disintegrate if their peers think they can migrate into the hearing world. The issue turns out to be far more complex than you might assume; the film makes viewers think hard about a little-known debate.
The box set dives into the past for the classic Scared Straight, in which juvenile criminals are sentenced to a day behind bars. It looks at the fine arts, with classical music and dance films, and even to architect Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The gut-wrenching Children Underground sits alongside the tender Best Boy (which, like Scared Straight, has a sequel as a bonus feature in the collection). True crime tales join investigations of a long war's aftermath. Topping things off is The Weather Underground, the fascinating 2003 chronicle of one of America's most infamous dissident groups.
Separately, Docurama is about to release Paul Stekler's Last Man Standing, an engrossing look at a heated battle for state representative not far from San Antonio. Republican Rick Green and Democrat Patrick Rose duke it out, and if you don't know who won, the movie will be a lot more fun if I don't tell you.
Docurama has no monopoly on non-fiction, of course. New from Lions Gate is Hype!, the popular look at the explosion of Seattle's grunge scene. Directed by Scratch's Doug Pray, the disc boasts Nirvana's first-ever performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and follows the movement to the point at which every record label suit wanted to buddy up to any musician in flannel and whiskers.
Slightly more calm is the story of a jazz singer's second life. Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew (Rhino) introduces newcomers to one of the music's strangest voices: Scott's distinctively feminine voice is the result of a hormonal problem that was a blessing and a curse. The doc shows how the once-famous warbler fell on hard times only to be rediscovered in the '90s.
Finally, and most excitingly, Plexifilm has just released a movie that David Byrne fans have been wanting to see for years.
Ilé Aiyé (The House of Life) centers on one of the many world cultures that have fascinated the former Talking Head over his long career: Brazil's Candomblé, a "spirit cult" that colors the Bahia region's music, religion, food, and dance. The film's soundtrack incorporates both Candomblé and Byrne's own collaboration with Brazilian musicians, and the disc offers a new commentary from the renaissance man himself. Now, if only someone would get around to putting out a serious edition of Byrne's first film, True Stories. •
By John DeFore