In the summer, movie theaters are often devoted to the fictional and fantastical — but those who are looking to sink their teeth into great nonfiction filmmaking will find plenty to love this summer.
Ranging far beyond the customary “issue” documentaries, this summer’s documentary offerings include unconventional biographies of artists and fashion designers, a road trip with Elvis across the country, true stories that play more like dystopian thrillers, and even a tearjerking portrait of everyone’s favorite public television program host.
Here are 15 documentaries you won’t want to miss this summer.
Bobby Kennedy for President (April 27 on Netflix)
Bobby Kennedy for President is technically a docuseries, in which director Dawn Porter uses archival footage and interviews to build the story of Robert F. Kennedy’s life, presidential run, and assassination. The series’ most interesting episode is the fourth, which examines the aftermath of the assassination and the difficulty of serving justice in a case with such national prominence. The entire series will be available on Netflix.
RBG (May 4)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court in 1993, has also of late become something of an icon, particularly to young, progressive women who see her as a hero. RBG is a romping biographical documentary about her, outlining her life’s history, her long and fruitful marriage, her career, and her reputation as a dissenter with a bit of an attitude. RBG herself appears in the film to talk about her life — and do a mean plank at the gym.
Boom For Real brings to life the early years of legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, using interviews with his friends and mostly previously unseen archival footage. Director Sara Driver knew Basquiat, which means there’s an unusually personal touch to the film; it works best as a tribute to the artist from his friends, one that illuminates the time before he became an art-world icon.
Filmworker (May 11)
Leon Vitali had a promising acting career of his own, but he gave it up to become Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand man — a choice that shaped his life and the history of cinema in innumerable ways. Filmworker is Vitali’s story, and besides being a fascinating look into his life, it helps show how Kubrick, infamous for his exacting, perfectionist filmmaking, put together his own work.
Pope Francis — A Man of His Word (May 18)
Veteran director Wim Wenders worked directly with the Vatican to make this documentary about Pope Francis, which will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The film follows the pope as he travels and answers questions from around the world about matters of justice, the environment, immigration, and more. Though the Vatican’s involvement in the production virtually guarantees it won’t be a critical take, it will likely be a very illuminating one.
The Gospel According to André (May 25)
It’s hard to think of the world of high fashion without André Leon Talley, who was best known to many through his work at Vogue as news director, editorial director, and editor at large. The Gospel According to André delves into the life of the fashion-world icon, from his early years in North Carolina during Jim Crow to his life today.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor (June 8)
This movie promises to be the sleeper hit of the summer, with critics showering it with praise and audiences weeping at its festival screenings all winter. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a documentary look at the life and work of Fred Rogers, a.k.a. Mister Rogers, a man who meant so much to so many children and whose power has continued long past his death in 2003.
Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (June 8)
Vivienne Westwood, the British fashion designer, is well known for both her clothing and the way her life dovetailed with the punk scene. In Westwood, she proves to be an obstinate and unpredictable subject and interviewee, which is a shot in the arm for an otherwise workmanlike biographical documentary, giving a look at both her life and her personality.
The King (June 22)
For The King, director Eugene Jarecki and his crew somehow acquire Elvis Presley’s car (the film doesn’t explain how) and start driving all over America, beginning in Tupelo, Mississippi. Along the way, they revisit major points of interest from Elvis’s life and call in a wide variety of people (sometimes planned, sometimes not) to explain and contextualize them. The King is not really a film about Elvis; he’s a proxy for examining postwar America and how the country arrived at its present state of the eroded American dream.
Three Identical Strangers (June 29)
When their paths unexpectedly cross, three young men who look shockingly similar discover that they are, in fact, triplets, separated at birth. But that’s just the very first part of this wild but true story. Three Identical Strangers starts off like a comedy, but as the story spirals out into something much larger, it ends up feeling like a dystopian tragedy.
Whitney (July 6)
Whitney isn’t the first documentary about Whitney Houston, but it is the first one authorized by the late singer’s estate. That has its upsides and downsides, of course, but it also guarantees unprecedented access into her life, which should make fans very happy.
Dark Money (July 13)
Dark Money is more thriller than straight-ahead documentary, positing that what most keenly threatens our democracy is all the untraceable money funneled into the American political system. The movie, which follows a journalist seeking to uncover the way elections are influenced by donors, picked up the producing award at its Sundance premiere and was nominated for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize.
McQueen (July 13)
McQueen leans on archival footage of the late, legendary fashion designer Alexander McQueen and his early shows for an intimate look at his life and career. McQueen was most recently memorialized in a legendary 2011 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, but this documentary uses his various collections as jumping-off points to examine his life and the inspirations behind his work.
Generation Wealth (July 20)
The documentary photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has spent her career looking at slices of America’s strangest and most unsettling subcultures, especially among the super wealthy. Generation Wealth (which has an accompanying book) functions best as a retrospective of her work; unfortunately, the narrative about wealth in America that the film tries to fashion never really coheres. But the images it puts onscreen are often startling and hard to forget.
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (August 22)
Tennis legend John McEnroe is having a cinematic moment, particularly in the release of Borg vs. McEnroe earlier in the year. But while that movie focused mainly on his opponent (and eventual friend) Björn Borg, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is an unconventional documentary that turns out to be less of a biographical documentary and more of a meditative look at time, images, and memory through the lens of McEnroe’s stunning 1984 tennis season.