There’s a moment in Jonathan Demme’s masterful 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense where frontman David Byrne, at the end of a rousing rendition of “Once In A Lifetime,” leaves the stage for a break. The band’s rhythm section’s side project, The Tom Tom Club, then performs “Genius Of Love,” after which Byrne returns and the Talking Heads concert proper continues. As a kid it struck me as an odd, arty, and maybe magnanimous choice by both Byrne and Demme to include the moment. Not gonna lie, as teens we fast-forwarded past it, and it became this jokey footnote for us.
It’s harder to quantify the experience of seeing that moment parodied 33 years later with an art forger’s precision, and to see it mined for not only laughs but a surprising amount of pathos and humanity. Other people thought this was a weird tangent? And it stuck in their minds too? To the point that they wrote a comedy bit around it!? But seeing that moment recreated so precisely and recontextualized so deeply is the essence of what’s brilliant about Documentary Now!, and it is my pleasure to tell you that season two of the IFC series is now streaming on Netflix.
Last year we joked that Documentary Now! is a comedy show made for eight people, and were it not for the internet allowing us all to find others like us, that might be true. But still: it's one seriously goddamn niche audience, and it makes the effort and skill on display in the show feel that much more special. If you know these films, you will absolutely fall in love with this show from Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Seth Myers, Rhys Thomas and John Mulaney.
But for the new kids, we thought we’d drop a primer of sorts: each episode of Documentary Now! riffs on a classic documentary film, recreating its look and feel with astonishing accuracy. The genius of the show is that it takes the concept beyond mere parody, layering each episode with a new spin - sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, but literally always impressive. So a spot-on goof on Grey Gardens becomes a found-footage horror film; a take on the classic silent doc Nanook Of The North turns into a portrayal of a brilliant, megalomaniacal cinematic visionary who lives in an igloo but also invents the tracking shot and editing; a Thin Blue Line parody posits a frame-up fueled (and justified) solely by how unlikable its victim is.
Bill Hader and Fred Armisen star, going for broke with some incredible character work in every episode. And Helen Mirren hosts. Really.
Season two went just as hard, and if you’re new to the show, these video links are for you. They aren't clips of the show; go to Netflix for that! No - we share these clips of Documentary Now!’s inspirations in the hopes you’ll appreciate the scope of what they’re doing on the series, and move you to help widen their audience.
“The Bunker” is in the vein of The War Room, and watching the trailer for that film, it’s not hard to guess what you’ll find Bill Hader doing in the episode.
“Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” takes the style and narrative of Jiro Dreams Of Sushi and applies it to the story of a chef who makes the world’s best arroz con pollo. While the laughs are there, you’ll also find yourself getting choked up.
“Location Is Everything” manages to parody Spalding Gray’s monologues from films like Swimming To Cambodia, but telling you just how it does this would spoil it. Suffice it to say that Hader gets this act DOWN.
“Globesman” is another bang-on replica, this time of the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman, and it’s maybe as heart-wrenching as its inspiration.
“Final Transmission” would get by just based on the stuff from Stop Making Sense discussed above. Add to that stuff Armisen's considerable musical skill. Then it stops and becomes a parody of an entirely different concert film. I fell off the couch.
“Mr. Runner Up” targets another film that you’d think is impossible to parody, but as with each episode, the Documentary Now! team finds a way.
We can't wait for season three.