The third season of Documentary Now! is returning this week (under the guise of being “Season 52”), kicking off seven more mini mockumentaries that are spot-on spoofs of real nonfiction films and series. Hosted by Helen Mirren, the IFC anthology comedy is the brainchild of Saturday Night Live vets Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, Rhys Thomas, and Bill Hader, the last of whom has taken a bit of a backseat this year while busy with other projects.
These guys really know their stuff when it comes to documentaries (find out their favorites here, here, and here), and they continue translating their love for the mode, in all its various forms and genres, into wonderfully funny homages. In the past, they’ve lampooned such classics as Grey Gardens, The Thin Blue Line, Nanook of the North, and Stop Making Sense. This season they’re getting a little more obscure. But their targets are pretty specific, so we’ve set up a guide to the new episodes by highlighting the documentary being parodied.
The Source Family (2012)
The first two episodes bring us this season’s two-parter, “Batshit Valley,” and the primary documentary being spoofed here is obviously Netflix’s recent docuseries Wild Wild Country. Right down to the Oregon setting, the clash with locals, the news reports, and the drone shots, it’s like re-watching the six-part chronicle of the Rajneeshpuram cult, only funnier. And stars Michael Keaton. And because it’s two episodes, we get a Netflix binge-worthy cliffhanger, too. SNL already did its own okay Wild Wild Country spoof last year, but now we get to see why this crew was that show’s best bunch of documentary parodists and to be grateful they’re doing this program as a continuation and alternative.
In addition to Wild Wild Country, the makers of Documentary Now! officially cite The Source Family as another inspiration for “Batshit Valley.” The references to this upbeat feature start to come out in the second part, when Owen Wilson‘s cult leader is shown to have owned a health food restaurant similar to Father Yod’s The Source and a group photo used in the promotion of The Source Family is impeccably recreated. Even though they’re minor moments, the specificity just shows how much these guys are in tune to tons of real docs and are able to hopefully get a lot of them, particularly such lesser-known works as The Source Family, seen through their gateway series.
Let’s Get Lost (1988)
As much as the creators have mostly wanted to steer clear of attempting their own This is Spinal Tap, every season of Documentary Now! gets an obligatory music doc parody. The new episode “Long Gone,” shot on location in Budapest, follows the life story of a jazz musician played by Armisen and features his real-life partner and current buzzworthy Netflix star Natasha Lyonne as the subject’s girlfriend and fellow musical talent.
Its directly acknowledged inspiration is Let’s Get Lost, a purely ’80s music doc about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Legendary photographer Bruce Weber earned an Oscar nomination for the entrancing black and white feature, in which every frame is like a work of art on its own. The relatively free-form film is at different times sad, funny, poetic, and cool, as it weaves mostly through footage of Baker then in contrast with how he looked in the ’50s.
Original Cast Album: Company (1970)
Following the Season 2 opener “The Bunker,” which perfectly skewed The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker receives another tribute in the form of the Season 3 episode “Original Cast Album: Co-Op.” Best known for its scenes with Elaine Stritch, the film Original Cast Album: Company (a favorite of director Rian Johnson, too) documents an overnight recording of the eponymous soundtrack for Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning Broadway show Company.
The mockumentary version does the same for a show called Co-Op, which isn’t quite as successful. The episode stars quite an ensemble of comedic and musical talents, including fellow SNL vet Taran Killam as a producer, John Mulaney, who also co-wrote the episode with Meyers, as a Sondheim stand-in, and Broadway stars Alex Brightman and Renee Elise Goldsberry as Co-Op cast members. While not the token music doc, this one is still full of enjoyable fake songs.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (2012)
There are only two actresses I would want to watch impersonate Marina Abramovic. One is Tilda Swinton, who might be too on-the-nose given that she’s done her own Abramovic-esque performance art piece for the Museum of Modern Art and also partly channeled Abramovic for her Suspiria character. The other is Cate Blanchett, whom Documentary Now! managed to cast in a role paying homage to the Serbian artist. And of course, she’s amazing as “Izabella Barta” in the episode “Waiting for the Artist,” which sends up the art world.
Any art-focused doc is deserving of a Documentary Now! episode, but most films on the subject do a fine job on their own making this arena look as ridiculous as can be. That’s why a lot of art world spoofs (such as the new movie Velvet Buzzsaw) aren’t able to do much with their exaggerations. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present is sort of the same, although its focus on Abramovic’s career and her latest performance art installation, in which the artist herself sits at a table across from MoMA visitors, one by one, is done so seriously and tastefully that it’s just fun seeing her and it mocked so perfectly, complete with a reunion with an old lover played by Armisen.
A League of Ordinary Gentlemen (2004)
The makers of Documentary Now! understand that the key to a great parody is respect. They’re not just out to make fun of the films or the people in them, which is akin to something that great documentarians understand. Don’t make fun of your subject matter or characters. A League of Ordinary Gentlemen is the sort of cult favorite that nears that line. Focused on professional bowlers, the doc is full of colorful personalities who elicit the occasional laughter but it’s not really at their expense.
The Documentary Now! version is called “Any Given Saturday Afternoon,” a title that seems to give a nod to the classic motorcycle sports doc On Any Sunday but is more referencing the difference between the time of bowling broadcasts and more popular occasion for professional football. This hilarious spoof stars Michael C. Hall, SNL vets Bobby Moynihan and Tim Robinson, and Veep‘s Kevin Dunn, and I’m glad it’s going to introduce fans to A League of Ordinary Gentlemen as opposed to a more familiar doc of this kind, like King of Kong. I’m also glad that it’s not just broad Kingpin-like comedy.
Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston (2010)
The Season 3 episode “Searching for Mr. Larson: A Love Letter from the Far Side” is not directly inspired by one documentary, at least that I’m aware of. The mark is definitely not Dear Mr. Watterson, despite the similar title and focus on another brilliant retired cartoonist. Instead, the idea, which Hader was talking about way back in 2015 while promoting the first season, takes on so many first-person style documentaries that put the self-involved filmmaker above the subject they’re making the film about.
You’ve got your filmmaker personalities like Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield who manage to make the concept work. Then there are the novice directors turning a lens on their famous relations, usually parents, who get in their own way. And there are naively amateurish fandom docs such as the John Hughes-focused Don’t You Forget About Me and the pestering dos like Paul Williams: Still Alive. But then there’s Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, which is on a level all its own.
The doc is made by rich kid Whitney Smith, now better known for starring on the reality series Southern Charm, and while it should be a film about fashion designer Halston, it’s often more about Smith himself, starting off with him buying a Trans-Am to drive around in while working on the doc. We do get enough of a biographical portrait of Halston, yet the ridiculously unprofessional Smith is unprepared on a level you can’t believe. I do wonder if Hader has seen and was inspired by Ultrasuede.
Bonus: From the Earth to the Moon (1998)
Like Wild Wild Country, this one isn’t a movie. It’s also not relevant to Season 3 of Documentary Now!, at least not anymore. Last year, a press release about the new season noted just two episodes planned, “Waiting for the Artist” and the presently absent “One Giant Leap,” described as an “homage to the multitude of space-race documentaries” and specifically formatted to mimic HBO’s miniseries From Earth to the Moon.
Given this year’s 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, the idea would seem to be perfect for this season, but perhaps “One Giant Leap” was going to be the latest two-parter and then Wild Wild Country came out and was so popular that they felt it was a necessary target to turnover quickly. Hopefully, we’ll see it later, so in the meantime get acquainted with the miniseries as well as 1989’s For All Mankind, the upcoming Sundance hit Apollo 11, and others centered on the same subject.