Continuing our A to Z march through the documentary longlist (yes, even if has already been whittled down) in the lead up to our best of the year list.
In previous weeks we have looked at letters A through C and then D through F. This week brings a few big hitters of documentary in 2022 including one high profile absentee from the Academy’s shortlist of 15 (Good Night Oppy), a surprise inclusion on that same list (Hallejulah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song) and a quiet indie achievement that won acclaim and awards on the festival circuit (I Didn’t See You There).
Good Night Oppy begins with elaborate visual effects, generous narration from Angela Bassett, and an introduction to a robot character with eyes on being a Wall-E for the science nerds. I was immediately turned off.
The problem, I think, is that the efforts of director Ryan White (the excellent Assassins and The Keepers miniseries; the disappointing The Case Against 8 and Serena) come off as immediately shameless. A childish gee whiz tone is set almost immediately by a rather infantilizing choice to anthropomorphize the two Mars rover robots Opportunity and Spirit (the first of which to ‘die’ and, apparently, not worthy of a mention in its title for some reason). Overly cutesy visual flourishes diminish the very real scientific and truly awe-inspiring achievements of those NASA employees whose stories White seems determined to undermine.
In retrospect, it was hardly a surprise that the Academy’s documentary branch ultimately turned their noses up at what turned out to be a protracted PBS news special. There is nothing wrong with wholesome, and children deserve documentary programming as much as the rest of us, but Good Night Oppy treats even its youngest viewers without the respect they deserve.
Release: Good Night Oppy is streaming globally on Amazon Prime Video.
Speaking of shortlist surprises… you know, I like to think I am pretty good at being able to suss out what the Academy’s documentary branch will and won’t go for. I think I have predicted 13/15 of the shortlists for the last few years. I had not seen Oppy before making my predictions and if I had I would not have done so. Even so, I never in a million years would have thought that this would be the one the Academy would go for in its place. A musician bio-doc—a genre they are not known to embrace unless steered by a filmmaker of more esteemed reputation or bigger artistic vision (like Brett Morgan’s Moonage Daydream or last year’s The Velvet Underground from Todd Haynes). The last to be nominated was What Happened, Miss Simone? and far better ones this year missed out.
I especially would not have predicted one that is this, well, sloppy. Maybe there were just a few more Cohen fans that I expected in the branch, but its inclusion feels like a missed opportunity to spotlight something with a more adventurous story or interesting creative aesthetic (like the film below, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
To be fair to directing partners Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller (Ballet Russes), I’m not the biggest fan of Leonard Cohen at the best of times. But they have landed upon an interesting angle with which to explore the life of this Jewish poet turned singer-songwriter by investigating his career through the prism of his most famous song, “Hallelujah”. What began as a deep cut on an album that was shelved and only release internationally, spurned itself into the sort of career defining song that most could only dream of.
The problem here is that Hallelujah, despite a rather unwieldly two hour runtime, spends far too long on things of little importance whenever it threatens to really dig into some of the thornier issues that the song and its commercialized success raise. Goldfine and Geller spend far too long on Shrek for some reason, and a rib-nudging dig at its rise in pop culture as an American Idol and X-Factor standard feel cheap and lazy. By its end, where kd lang is shown performing the song (brilliantly, I might at) at Cohen’s tribute concert, the film has covered a lot of ground, but done so without ever approaching the spiritual high of its subject matter.