With performing art centers, such as The Straz, temporarily shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cable networks and streaming services are tapping into a large bank of available documentaries centered on the performing arts so we can satisfy our appetite for theater, dance, opera and more.
And though documentaries generally don’t bring in Marvel box office dollars, in the past few years, this genre of film making has seen a resurgence. Documentaries make a difference because they pull back the curtain on a person, topic or issue offering a fresh perspective with intimate storytelling or just plain “what the hell is that” sensationalism.
Nothing makes that case more than Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, with its by-chance Netflix release timed with stay-at-home orders, making it the talk of the pandemic’s first month.
Of course, the tale of Joe Exotic and his big cats is hardly high art – performance art, maybe.
This list is going to focus its sights on documentaries related to art forms celebrated on our stages – but that doesn’t mean someone right now isn’t developing Joe Exotic – The Musical.
So, pop some gourmet Orville Redenbacher and enjoy our picks of must-watch performing art documentaries. The films are available for a fee unless otherwise indicated.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (2016) – Actor/theater director Lonny Price documents the emotional journey of the original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along that opened with great aplomb in 1981, only to close after 16 performances. Includes appearances by Sondheim, Hal Prince, Jason Alexander and Mandy Patinkin. Available on Netflix.
The Standbys (2012) – This documentary follows three performers over two years, telling the story of those waiting in the wings for their possible star-making opportunity. We learn of their struggles and successes and also hear from celebrities, such as Sutton Foster, David Hyde Pierce and Cheyenne Jackson, who also were once understudies. Available on iTunes.
Dancemaker (1998) – An extraordinary film showcasing an equally extraordinary dance company headed and named for influential choreographer Paul Taylor. Covering several months in 1997, Dancemaker details preparation– from conception to opening night – of “Piazzolla Caldera,” Taylor’s famed passionate dance inspired by a tango salon. The film includes historical footage of Taylor as a young dancer plus candid interviews with members of the dance company. Available free on YouTube.
Pavarotti (2019) – Directed by Oscar®-winner Ron Howard, the life, work and achievements of the bigger-than-life tenor paint a familiar, if not revelatory portrait. Details on his complicated life may not be as full-throated as his musical instrument, but it is still an engaging tale of the man who brought opera to the masses. Frankly, it is more than worth a watch for “Nessun Dorma” alone. Available on Amazon Prime and Showtime.
Every Act of Life (2018) – An intimate profile of four-time Tony®-winning playwright Terrence McNally, whose untimely death in March due to the coronavirus makes this portrait all the more poignant. His six decades in the theater are chronicled including his fight for LGBTQ rights, a victory over addiction and cancer and his groundbreaking work – Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class and Ragtime – that touched lives and impacted society. Available on Amazon Prime and YouTube.
Ballet 422 (2014) – Then up-and-coming and now Tony Award®-winning choreographer Justin Peck was shadowed by filmmaker Jody Lee Lipes as Peck shouldered the colossal task of creating New York City Ballet’s 422nd original work. There isn’t a lot of chatter in this intimate portrait of the process of creating art. Peck not only designs the dance, his hand is in the costumes, the lighting – all of it a giant puzzle meticulously pieced together until the picture, er, dance is complete. Available on Amazon Prime and YouTube.
Every Little Step (2008) – Culled from more than 400 hours of tape, this film reflects the plot of the production it showcases, A Chorus Line, as it documents the sometimes emotional auditions of those vying to be on the line in the revival – how meta! Potential 2006 players are interviewed and you hear the voices of the original 1975 cast members as the documentary digs deep to demonstrate what one does for the love to be on a Broadway stage. Available on Amazon Prime and YouTube.
Truth or Dare (1991) – C’mon, we had to throw some pop into this list. For many, the value of this documentary chronicling Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour depends on where you fall on the Material Girl. Once you move past the cone bras, her gag reflex regarding actor Kevin Costner calling her “neat” and then-boyfriend Warren Beatty’s choice comment about her not wanting to live off camera, what the viewer learns most about is that Madonna is invested in being Madonna and that she has a stringent, focused work ethic to keep her in the game. Available on Amazon Prime and YouTube.
Harold Prince: The Director’s Life (2018) – It is hard to find someone who had greater impact on Broadway theater than producer/director Hal Prince, and this film, originally part of PBS’ Great Performances, makes the case that no one comes close. His hand touched the most beloved and revered musicals including The Pajama Game, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Company, Sweeney Todd and The Phantom of the Opera. Prince, who died in July 2019, was interviewed for the film as well as many of his famous collaborators including Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Angela Lansbury. Free on PBS.org.