En español | As your local multiplex overflows with dinosaurs, superheroes and killer robots this summer, you may long for a film with brains and real substance. Lucky you: A wide range of inspiring true stories — yes, I'm talking documentaries — are headed for theaters, many with a head of steam from their film festival debuts. Whether you want to be provoked, intrigued or merely tickled, these six grownup bio-docs are well worth your time to seek out.
"Why do we do this stuff?" asks 52-year-old mountain climber Conrad Anker in Meru, which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival this year. "The view. The view. You can't beat the view."
Having ascended Mount Everest three times before he turned 50, Anker longed to knock off Meru, a virtually unknown 21,850-foot Himalayan peak whose Shark Fin rock wall had never been conquered. But not for lack of trying, including attempts by Anker in 2003, 2008 and 2011. On his second and third tries, he was joined by two relative youngsters, Jimmy Chin (now 40) and Renan Ozturk (now 34), who also shot most of this gorgeous film. All three men endured physical and emotional setbacks so severe that we would never swallow them in a fictional tale.
But Meru is unstintingly real, delving into each man's unique psyche and their shared obsession with being first to the top. Like the very best documentaries, it tackles much more than its mere subject — in this case, inviting us to reflect on the parallels between ascent and existence: It's not about the summit, it's all about the climb.
The Outrageous Sophie Tucker
In a world without Sophie Tucker, the careers of female performers from Lady Gaga to Bette Midler (who named her only daughter Sophie) might never have gotten off the ground. The sassy, brassy singer had a voice as big and as deep as the ocean, and an outsize personality to match. Performing for presidents and kings, in nightclubs and on radio, the Last of the Red Hot Mamas reigned as one of the world's most popular entertainers for the first five decades of the 20th century.
In this well-researched biography, writer-producers Lloyd and Susan Ecker have used Tucker's own scrapbooks — more than 400 of them! — to retell her incredible story. So, how outrageous was she? After separating from her husband in 1906 and leaving her newborn son in her sister's care, 19-year-old Sophie took off for the vaudeville stages of New York, where her soulful singing voice led critics to dub her the Queen of Ragtime. (She was equally renowned for the bawdy jokes she told onstage.) She married a few more husbands, took a few female lovers and befriended gangsters, gay blades and even J. Edgar Hoover — who's said to have told her that he longed to borrow (and wear) her fabulous signature gowns.
The marvel (and the moral) of her story is that Tucker never tuckered out: " 'Retiring' is a dirty word," she says in the film. "I shall die with my boots on, right in any theater, any club. I will be on the job." That she was, too, performing just weeks before her death at 79.
Call Me Lucky
Ever heard of comedian Barry Crimmins? Neither had I. But you'll never forget him once you watch Call Me Lucky.
Bombastic, edgy and influential, Crimmins performed at — and presided over — the 1980s Boston comedy club Ding Ho, along with fellow up-and-comers Denis Leary, Steven Wright and Bobcat Goldthwait (the latter of whom directed this award-winning bio-doc).
As those and other comics attest, Crimmins' style — over-the-top delivery of biting political commentary — made him the precursor of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart. So why isn't he a household name today?
To answer that question, Call Me Lucky takes a lurching turn into darkly unfunny terrain: Crimmins was sexually abused as a very young boy, a fact he kept secret until the night he revealed it onstage. It was an epiphany not just for the audience: His true life's calling, Crimmins realized, was to advocate on behalf of abused children. In 1995, for example, he single-handedly took on AOL before Congress, forcing that nascent Internet giant to shut down its child-pornography chat rooms. His obsessive struggle continues to this day, convincing viewers that we're lucky indeed to have this crusading soul on the scene.
That's an odd title for a film about the human inability to get along, but director Shaun Monson must know a thing or two about the notion of unity. How else could this little-known filmmaker (his previous work is 2005's Earthlings) have persuaded more than 100 famous actors and activists to lend their voices to his movie? In addition to Oscar winners (Geoffrey Rush, Anjelica Huston, Common), Monson convinced the likes of Deepak Chopra, Selena Gomez and Tony Hawk to help him voice his premise about the impracticality of coexistence.
I know, I know — uplifting, right? But there is perhaps no message more urgent than Monson's about leading a life of compassion. Told in a series of narrated images — both stills and videos, some sublimely beautiful but others deeply disturbing — Unity explores Monson's thesis that humans will be unable to live in harmony until they learn "egolessness."
The payoff? Nothing less than the eradication of greed, war and insensitivity to the suffering of others, be they animal, vegetable or humanoid.
It's a provocative topic, and one that requires some heavy sledding through the vastness of the solar system, the brutal history of humankind, specific personal emotions and the role of food in our lives. But look on the bright side: Monson's plea that we stop killing living things for food — including, paradoxically, the very plants the Unity director eats to stay alive — will make you much more understanding of the vegan in your life.
Why 50-something parents Oscar and Susanne Angulo would admit filmmaker Crystal Moselle into their weird world — where they kept their seven children as virtual prisoners in an apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side — is anyone's guess. What's indisputable is the result: the strangest documentary you'll see this year.
The Wolfpack follows this aggressively dysfunctional family as the children begin to break away from their parents' thrall. Moselle shot her footage over the course of five years, a period when the six home-schooled boys came of age and began fighting to leave the apartment. (The youngest, a girl, is disabled and rarely appears.)
Until then the boys (who now range in age from 23 to 16) had known the outside world primarily through films, which they spent all their time memorizing and then reenacting in the confines of their apartment. It's a strange and utterly compelling story. Once you're done shaking your head, you won't be able to stop talking about how boomers have raised their broods.
The Babushkas of Chernobyl
Three Russian grandmothers sit around a rickety table and raise their vodkas to Jesus Christ, in celebration of Easter, as this mind-boggling film begins. They are some of the babushkas (grandmothers and older women) of Chernobyl, the 100 or so women who returned to their forbidden villages after the nuclear plant at Chernobyl melted down just before Easter 1986. The women live in the Ukraine's 1,000-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which chatters with radiation to this day.
Many of them weren't yet grandmothers when the accident happened, but all were part of the massive evacuation that immediately occurred. Despite radiation levels 400 times higher than Hiroshima's, they simply turned around and started walking, then crawled under barbed-wire fences and returned to their homes.
"I'd be dead if I hadn't come back," one woman announces, tending her garden and fishing in the local stream. Babushkas doesn't explain how they've survived the radioactive landscape; instead, filmmakers Anne Bogart and Holly Morris simply show us the babushkas scrabbling to make ends meet — and telling us why they stay. "Motherland is motherland," one says, recalling her youth under Stalin's rule. "Radiation doesn't scare me. Starvation does." Her point of view may spring to mind the next time you're tempted to grouse about the selection of kale chips at Whole Foods.
Jenny Peters (@jennpeters) is a freelance journalist, editor and party columnist in Los Angeles.