18th Aug2015

Ten Best: “Pop Culture” Documentaries

by Phil Wheat

In recent years there has been a real boom in documentaries surrounding popular culture. Films such as Electric Boogaloo, Video Nasties, The Search for Weng Weng and Adjust Your Tracking have captured the zeitgeist of fans across the globe, and in turn inspired more people to create their own documentaries about pop culture subjects that matter to them…

But not all these documentaries see the same success. Having been on something of a documentary kick lately, I thought I’d break down the ten of the best little-known, or better yet little-discussed, pop-culture documentaries from the many, many examples I have been watching. So here they are and, for once, they’re in order:

1) Slaughter Nick For President

There’s a good reason this film is at the top of my list. This is the documentary that kicked off my exploration of pop culture documentaries (eventually ending up at compliling this list) and, despite only vague memories of the subject matter, it shows just how good documentaries on lesser-known subjects can be. Without banging the audience over the head with facts and figures and copious amounts of exposition; and without assuming the audience knows anything about the TV show on which this film centres, Slaughter Nick For President tells its story. And its a wonderful, heart-warming story…

The film tells the story of Rob Stewart, a Canadian actor who found a small amount of fame in the early 90s when he appeared in the TV show Tropical Heat, aka Sweating Bullets. Never quite reaching that level of success, Stewart discovers – through Facebook – that he’s been wildly famous in Serbia for almost two decades. Slaughter Nick For President follows him as he sets out to discover the reasons why. Which involve the extraordinary peaceful overthrow of a brutal dictator!

2) From Bedrooms to Billions

From Bedrooms to Billions is the remarkable true story of the British Video Games Industry from 1979 to the present day. Developments in computer technology in the UK of the late 70′s early 80′s helped inspire a generation of small team enthusiasts, hobbyists, school kids, bedroom coders and entrepreneurs to make and release some truly classic games. This documentary tells the story of how the creativity and vision of a relatively small number of individuals allowed the UK to play a key, pioneering role in the shaping of the billion dollar video games industry – featuring interviews with key contributors to the UK story such as Peter Molyneux, Jeff Minter, David Braben, David Perry, Mark Healey, Jason Kingsley and many others from across video game development, publishing and journalism from over the last 40 years.

It’s the mark of a great documentary when you learn something new about the subject despite watching a myriad of similar films and reading a ton of books on the matter – that’s what From Bedroom to Billions does. It opened my eyes to little snippets of information that I never knew before, for example who knew WHSmiths were responsible for the boom era of UK gaming – both in terms of selling games AND in terms of video game journalism? I didn’t. Who knew that US Gold were named, literally, because the early games were bought in from bedroom programmers in the States? I didn’t. It’s those nuggets of information and the little gems of “insider” stories that raise this documentary above others like it, and that’s on top of the fact this entire film takes a look at the boom and bust video game market from a UK angle!

3) VHS Forever? Psychotronic People

There has been an explosion in recent years of documentaries taking a look back at VHS, mainly from an American perspective (and often focussing more on the current rarity of said tapes rather than the nostaglia factor) with films like Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking. However here in the UK most documentaries related to the VHS era have focussed more on the video nasties (think Jake West & Marc Morris’ two popular docs). However VHS Forever? Psychotronic People takes a fond look back on the early days of video from a very British perspective, including the underground videotape scene in the UK – in particular those folks connected to the Camden-based video store known as Psychotronic Video – and those who lived through that period of time, including the likes of Evil Dead artist Graham Humphreys, screenwriter David McGillivray, journalist Allan Bryce and director Norman J. Warren.

4) Cam Girlz

If there’s one thing the internet gave us it’s easier access to porn. Even in the early days of the world-wide web adult material was rife. But waht the ‘net has also done has put adult “industry” in the hands of amateurs; creating a cottage industry of pron. From those that run their own websites, to the thousands of woman who log on each day and live their lives out in front of a web cam.

Cam Girlz enters the world of webcam sex workers who find economic freedom, empowerment, intimacy and creative self expression from the comfort of their own homes. And their stories are surprising. The focus is on a wide variety of models, all with different world views, life goals and passions; and then there’s men who chat with them… Cam Girlz uncovers more than just people paying money for online sex, instead its shows a community of like-minded individuals, sharing experiences together online.

5) That Guy Dick Miller

Dick Miller. If you don’t know the name you know the face. The go-to guy for the likes of Joe Dante (Gremlins) and Roger Corman, Dick Miller is a veteran character actor whose career in and outside of Hollywood has spanned almost 200 films across six decades! That Guy Dick Miller takes a look at the career of one of Hollywood’s most familiar faces, featuring a diverse range of interviews with directors, co-stars, and contemporaries, including Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Fred Dekker, Corey Feldman, Ernest R. Dickerson, Robert Forester, Zach Galligan and many more!

6) The Go-Go Boys

Together Golan and Globus produced more than 300 films and founded the most powerful independent film company in the world, Cannon Films, which was responsible for Israeli and mainstream, Hollywood-blockbuster, action/exploitation hits during the duo’s 1980s hey day, starring the likes of Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Charles Bronson.

The Go-Go Boys tells the inside story of two Israeli-born cousins, the late Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who in pursuit of the “American dream” turned the Hollywood establishment upside down. Whereas Electric Boogaloo took a look at Cannon Films from the outside, The Go-Go Boys is – with the complete cooperation of the film’s subjects – an up close and personal examination of the complex relationship between two contradictory personalities, whose combined force fueled their successes and eventual split.

7) Turtle Power

Everyone knows who the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are. After all, they were, and in some ways still are, a global phenomenon. But they didn’t start out that way. Turtle Power tells the history of the wild and crazy characters, from the early days of the original black and white comic to today. Along the way there’s insight into just how the gritty comic became a kid-friendly, long-running, uber-successful cartoon and toy line; and how without a lot of help, and some believers in influential places, this comic – which presented a completely original breed of super hero, considered too bizarre and too crazy – which broke all the rules and should never have worked, did! And how the Turtles became a beloved part of American pop culture…

8) Plastic Galaxy

Star Wars is undeniably a cultural phenomenon. But who would have thought, all those years ago, that the little plastic action figures produced to coincide with the movies would – to this day – command the amount of fandom (and high prices) as they do today?

Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys is a documentary about everyone’s favorite toy line. Featuring interviews with former Kenner designers, experts, authors, and of course collectors, the film explores the history and pop-cultural influence of the action figures, ships, and play sets. It looks at where they came from, how they were made, why they were so popular… and how they’d go on to transform the world of toy manufacturing and movie making forever!

9) All American High Revisited

Back in 1987 Keva Rosenfeld directed a documentary, All American High, that chronicled the life of the 1984 senior class at Torrance High School as seen from the perspective of Finnish exchange student “Rikki” Rauhala, observing 1980’s high school culture from a foreigner’s perspective. Despite some good press from the likes of Michael Medved and The Village Voice, the film slipped into obscurity. Jump forward three decades and this once thought lost documentary was rediscovered and remastered for an entire new generation to enjoy. But what happened to the films cast in the intervening years? It seems Rosenfeld had the same question and revisited some of the cast – a cinematic school reunion if you will – and relives the film through their eyes…

10) Atari: Game Over

Directed by screen writer Zak Penn (X-Men: Last Stand, Last Action Hero) Atari: Game Over is a documentary about the well-publicised hunt to find 3.5 million unsold copies of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial videogame, fabled to have been the cause of Atari’s downfall in 1984. As the story goes, the Atari Corporation, faced with an overwhelming negative response to the E.T. Video Game, disposed millions of unsold game cartridges by burying them in the small town of Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1983.

This documentary sees Zak Penn, his team, Howard Scott Warshaw – the creator of the E.T. game, and a whole heap of video game fans: including Ready Player One author Ernest Cline (I would have loved to see more of Cline if I’m honest – his enthusiasm is infectious), headed to the landfill where the games were supposedly buried to determine whether the story has any merit by excavating the site and rummaging through the rubble… But Atari: Game Over is much more than an extended episode of Time Team. It’s the story of a company, and a man, whose reputation has become tarnished by a story which is just that, a story.

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