After a year that often seemed more fiction than fact, 2021 offers a slate of documentaries that, like many of us, had different plans for 2020. Films scheduled for release last year on superstars such as Rihanna, Billie Eilish and the Beatles are now on track for 2021 debuts. Some, such as Questlove’s film on 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, seem fitted to the nation’s cultural reckoning with racial injustice, while Antoine Fuqua’s film on the NBA shutdown in March directly addresses the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests themselves. With many release dates still in flux due to ongoing logistical concerns, here are eight of the most anticipated documentaries of 2021:
The long-gestating project between the director Peter Berg and the multi-hyphenate pop star and beauty/fashion mogul was one of several high-profile celebrity films delayed by the pandemic. The as-yet-untitled film promises to provide an intimate, characteristically disarming look into the Barbadian star’s expansive career as she transitioned from her most critically claimed album, 2016’s Anti, to launching her own Fenty beauty line, and becoming the first black woman to head a luxury line for LMVH. Berg reportedly amassed more than 1,200 hours of footage over five years, and the cameras are still rolling – “every time we think we’re going to finish the movie and put it out, she does something like start a fashion line like Fenty, or her lingerie line, or her skin care line,” he said in an interview – but is aiming for a release date on Amazon in summer 2021 (the streaming service acquired the project for a whopping $25m in 2019).
Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Premiering at this year’s (virtual) Sundance film festival, Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) marks the directorial debut of the Roots drummer and Tonight Show staple Questlove. Fittingly, the film explores the Harlem Cultural Festival – the “Black Woodstock” – a series of concerts held concurrently to the more famous (and very white) rock festival held 100 miles north during the summer of 1969. Questlove’s film revisits the festival for black pride and heritage, which drew more than 300,000 attendees and held performances by Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, BB King and the Staples Sisters, and honors its cultural legacy with hours of restored footage previously left unchecked and unseen for 50 years in a basement.
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
Another lucrative streaming deal for a pandemic-delayed music documentary sees Billie Eilish, who signed her own $25m deal with Apple TV+ in 2019, in her own behind-the-fame documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, released on 26 February. The film, directed by RJ Cutler, follows the teen queen of dark pop, now 19, as she develops and tours her smash 2019 album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Featuring her father Patrick O’Connell, mother Maggie Baird and brother/songwriting partner Finneas O’Connell, the film finds Eilish navigating the rush of critical acclaim (the Grammy wins, the industry hype), global superstardom (175 million followers on Instagram), and some more mundane teenage milestones (getting a driver’s license, still living at home with your parents).
The two-part HBO series, released on 10 and 17 January, on the golf phenom tracks the 15-time major winner from ascendant prodigy in the 1990s to untouchable star, from the sex and substance abuse scandal that imperiled his career to his comeback win at the 2019 Masters. The project, helmed by Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, A Private War) and Matthew Hamachek (Amanda Knox) draws on interviews from numerous figures in Woods’s orbit, including his former caddie and confidant Steve Williams, English golf star Nick Faldo, father Earl Woods’s biographer Peter McDaniel, his first love Dina Parr, and Rachel Uchitel, the nightclub manager whose relationship with the golfer ignited the scandal that blew up the golfer’s career and marriage to Elin Nordegren in 2009. Woods does not participate in the film, though it does feature unseen behind-the-scenes footage from his early and high school years.
The archival documentarian Sam Pollard’s critically acclaimed film on the FBI’s campaign of privacy invasion and harassment against the civil rights leader during the 1950s and 60s get its US digital theatrical release on 15 January, after weeks of plaudits for its timely, expansive portrait of America’s surveillance state history on the festival circuit. Working with a trove of carefully preserved footage and audio files, MLK/FBI delves into both the FBI’s sordid campaign of threatening King – as a civil rights activist, he was a “subversive” threat to the status quo – and the complications of the man, whose marital indiscretions and general humanness were weaponized against him by the bureau’s chief, J Edgar Hoover. (The FBI went as far as to mail Coretta Scott King a letter with evidence of MLK’s alleged affair, along with a note urging him to kill himself for the good of the movement, among many other damning details.)
The Day Sports Stood Still
From the director Antoine Fuqua and HBO, The Day Sports Stood Still tackles recent, unfortunately still-relevant history: the abrupt shutdown of the NBA for the coronavirus pandemic on 11 March 2020, and the unprecedented (sorry, there is no other word) stoppage to professional sports in the months that followed. Narrated by the NBA all-star Chris Paul, a point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the president of the NBA Players Association, the feature also covers the prominent cultural role played by athletes during America’s summer of reckoning with racial injustice, and the NBA’s fraught return to play in “the bubble” in the latter half of 2020.
The Beatles: Get Back
The Beatles: Get Back, coming to theaters and Disney+ on 27 August, is a project of faithful, meticulous restoration by the Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Billed as a “unique cinematic experience that takes audiences back in time”, the film draws from 60 hours of footage filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg during recording sessions in 1969 (originally captured for his 1970 film Let It Be, on the making of the album of the same name), and over 150 hours of previously unheard audio and the group’s final live performance on the rooftop of the Apple offices in Savile Row, London. Made in cooperation with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison (Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison), the project has received McCartney’s blessing, who has said that he “loves” it.
Amy Bloom’s documentary on Serge and Beate Klarsfeld sets the recollections of the famous Nazi hunter couple, who exposed Nazis hiding in France after the war, to animation with the feel of an espionage thriller. Bloom’s project, release date yet to be announced, comes from the production house of Alex Gibney, who is riding a prolific 2020 with not one but three major releases as a director: the films Crazy, Not Insane and Totally Under Control and the mini-series Agents of Chaos.