The Best and Worst Documentary Films of SXSW 2017

A look at 'Behind the Curtain,' 'Disgraced,' 'Mommy Dead and Dearest,' 'Becoming Bond,' and more of this year's non-fiction highlights.

CREATORS

The thematic element popping up most often in this year’s documentary slate was the creative process – how artists make the work that they make, and how the rest of us see it.

David Lynch: The Art Life

“You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and you paint… and that’s it.” That, in his youth, was David Lynch’s notion of “the art life,” right around the time he decided that was the life he wanted to lead – that nothing was more important to him than being an artist, no matter how long it took to make it as one (“I knew my stuff sucked, but I need to burn through. I had to find what was mine. And the only way to do that is to keep painting.”) This moody and informative documentary from directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm is solely interested in Lynch’s early years, with particular interest in his Pacific Northwest upbringing (“My world was no bigger than a couple of blocks”), and how all that suburban normalcy gave birth to his darkness and peculiarity – the way flashes of dread and strangeness would invade this idyllic childhood, and alter him forever. Lynch is, as ever, a fascinating figure, full of great stories, odd turns of phrase, and disturbing images; this unconventional documentary does right by its subject, which is no mean feat.

Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall

Director Katherine Fairfax Wright documents American Idol contestant and YouTube star Hall’s 2016 album and tour, a contemporary interpretation and staging of The Wizard of Oz that is a perpetual race against the clock – he writes records the songs, makes videos for all of them, releases the album (audio and video), and mounts a tour, all in the space of about a month. Hall seems to thrive on the adrenaline of pushing to the last minute, which is possible only because he’s a tireless worker and multi-hyphenate with a self-contained production unit. But aside from the fascinating logistical details of how this corner of the entertainment industry works, we also get a sense of how his art reflects his life; the film’s structure augments the performances with his autobiography, including some heart-wrenching memories of growing up black and gay in an environment that welcomed neither. Behind the Curtain could be a little tighter — it feels like the album and tour are each a movie fighting for time — but it’s a genuinely moving and inspiring portrait of a hard-working artist with a good heart (and of just how exhausting it is to be a pop star these days).

Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched

Director Frank Oz, an original Muppeteer turned accomplished filmmaker, gathers four of his fellow performers (the title’s a bit of a misnomer — it’s four guys and a girl) to reminisce about their years together and the man who brought them together, Jim Henson. The conversation is informative and often very funny, as they discuss the particulars of creating and performing the characters: finding the voice, finding the “lock,” understanding how many dimensions they needed, pulling them out of their own personalities (and flaws). Director Oz cleverly lays little animations over the interviews, helpfully illustrating the fascinating how-they-did-it stuff; otherwise, the filmmaking is shockingly amateurish for such an accomplished filmmaker (it looks like it was cut and titled in iMovie). It’s loose and informal, both for good and ill; there’s quite a bit of territory left uncovered in this barely-an-hour feature (and no real focus on the show, subtitle notwithstanding), but enough good stuff that fans will have a great time anyway.