As in years past, the calendar ahead for 2023 documentary remains patchwork at the moment. But it’s already sketched in with celebrity projects (on Michael J Fox, Little Richard, Pamela Anderson and others), overdue re-examinations (on artist Nam June Paik and sex researcher Shere Hite) and rushed-to-completion projects on headlining scams (multiple films on the collapse of crypto exchange FTX.)
Will 2023 finally be the year of the long-gestating Rihanna documentary? With more sure to be announced in the coming months – not to mention many docuseries in the works – here are 10 of the most anticipated documentary films of 2023:
Little Richard: I Am Everything
After years of acclaimed, revelatory films on the Black pioneers of American music (What Happened, Miss Simone?, Quincy and last year’s Oscar winner Summer of Soul) R&B forefather Little Richard gets the documentary treatment in 2023. Born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932, Little Richard’s distinctive style – frenetic piano-playing, raspy shouted vocals, heavy back beat – influenced commercial white musicians from Elvis Presley to Jerry Lee Lewis to the Beatles, who opened for him on some tour dates. Premiering at Sundance, Little Richard: I Am Everything promises to bring together his loved ones, peers, historians and chart-topping musicians to give the “architect of Rock and Roll” the “royal treatment he deserves”, said director Lisa Cortés, as well as explore the Black queer origins of American pop.
SBF and the End of Silicon Valley
The rise and fall of the crypto exchange FTX – allegedly a fraud to the tune of billions of dollars – was a foregone documentary premise the minute founder Sam Bankman-Fried’s net worth hit essentially zero. Bankman-Fried, colloquially known as SBF, will be the subject (and poster child) of a “new Dark Age” in a film collaboration between journalism outlets Vice Media and the Information, founded by business journalist Jessica Lessin in 2013. SBF and The End of Silicon Valley, due in Q2 of 2023, pledges to critique FTX’s inexperienced leadership, the role of VCs and SBF’s obsession with “effective altruism”, the film-makers told The Hollywood Reporter. “There are so many people involved in this story who should have known better, and did know better,” said Lessin. “This story marks the end of an era in Silicon Valley. A new Dark Age is coming.”
The other SBF/FTX documentary
Because there can never be just one and American audiences love a scam story, the spectacular collapse of FTX is getting the Fyre festival treatment – as in, two competing documentaries about the same subject, each touting expertise and access. In the case of the as-yet-untitled film from non-fiction studio XTR, director David Darg (Body Team 12, You Cannot Kill David Arquette) boasts “unprecedented access to key players at FTX and the cryptocurrency community” in SBF’s home base of the Bahamas. (How many three-letter acronyms can we get in one story?) The film, from the team behind They Call Me Magic, Meet Me in the Bathroom and 76 Days, will “explore the corporate drama that upended markets, sparked government investigations and sent shock waves through an industry still battling to gain mainstream credibility”, the film-makers told Variety. Let the doc wars begin.
Pamela, A Love Story
After a year of press largely not on her own terms thanks to the Hulu series Pam & Tommy, Pamela Anderson will tell her story in her own words in a Netflix documentary. The film, from Good Night Oppy director Ryan White, was already in process before Anderson found out about Hulu’s show on the theft of intimate video filmed with her then-husband, Tommy Lee, and sold without her permission to the tune of $75m. White has billed the film as less-than-stage-managed compared to the standard celebrity doc. “I feel like a lot of them are about brand management or selling a product, whatever that may be. And Pamela’s the opposite of that,” he told Vanity Fair this month. “From the very beginning, she was like, ‘You can ask me anything. I will talk about anything. I will be nothing but honest with you about it all.” The “all” reportedly includes the stolen tape, Anderson’s life as a Playboy model and actor, her marriages and motherhood, and the rigorous training for her Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in Chicago this past spring.
A potential Sundance standout, Bad Press focuses on Angel Ellis, a reporter for Mvskoke Media in Omulgee, Oklahoma, fighting for transparency and access to information for the Muscogee (Creek Nation). Directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler follow Ellis and her colleagues after an emergency session of the National Council repeals the 2015 Free Press Act, dissolves Mvskoke Media’s independent editorial board and places the newspaper under the direction of the secretary of the nation and commerce. Sundance has praised the film as a “nuanced, empowering tale of a modern Native community”.
Still-untitled Rihanna documentary
For the fourth year in a row, my most anticipated documentary of the upcoming year is the still-untitled, still-delayed Rihanna film. Directed by the Battleship film-maker Peter Berg, the endlessly anticipated documentary was initially sold to Amazon in 2019 for a staggering (to non-billionaires) $25m, with an initial planned release date of 2020. The pandemic bumped that to summer 2021, then again to … still unclear. Berg has reportedly recorded 1,200 hours of footage with the Barbadian superstar, and that was before her fashion-defining pregnancy and birth of her first child (with boyfriend A$AP Rocky) this past May. It is genuinely a tossup at this point whether we will get the film or new music first, but the fact that she is performing the half-time show in February offers a glimmer of hope (from a promotional point of view) that this six-plus-year project will ever see the light of day. Also hopeful: Berg said this week that the film is “done and sold” and just waiting for her approval, though he added: “Maybe it’ll be a 10-year project.”
The Disappearance of Shere Hite
In 1976, sex researcher Shere Hite dropped a bombshell study: according to interviews with more than 3,500 women, about 70% didn’t orgasm from sex with male partners, but could come easily by themselves. Hite’s findings are generally accepted now but caused a firestorm at the time; her book, The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, sold over 50m copies, exposed a long road ahead for the sexual revolution, and drew ire from both Playboy and the religious right. Her methodology and accuracy were so derided that she eventually relocated to Britain, where she died in 2020 at age 77. The Disappearance of Shere Hite, from NBC News and the Crip Camp director Nicole Newnham, draws from mostly unaired news interview footage with Hite and responses to her questionnaires to illuminate the researcher’s life and findings. The film “not only brought [Hite] back to life and brought that really relevant information back into public discourse, but also kind of gives you the opportunity to see, how does a woman get silenced? How does that happen?” Newnham has said.
Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV
First-time feature director Amanda Kim explores the life of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century: Nam June Paik, the father of video art and the originator of the term “electronic super highway” to describe the future of telecommunications. Born in Japan-occupied Korea in 1932, Paik studied classical music in Hong Kong and Japan before settling in Germany in the 1950s, where he became a leader of the neo-dada movement known as Fluxus. Kim’s film, in which actor Steven Yeun reads Paik’s own words, purports to demonstrate the futurist artist’s playfulness and creativity, a portrait of a creator who was, according to the logline, “perhaps the most modern artist of all time”.
BTS for Disney+
As part of Disney’s reach into the ever-expanding hallyu, or Korean wave, the American entertainment giant recently announced not one but two projects with the biggest band in the world, K-pop’s BTS, for its streaming service in 2023. The first, a series called BTS Monuments: Beyond the Star, expands on four concert films to offer reportedly “unparalleled” access into the lives and daily lives of the band’s seven members within stratospheric fame. The second, a standalone film on member J-Hope, will focus on the run-up to the dance captain’s solo debut Jack in the Box in July 2022. The film, which has no announced release date, will work in footage from J-Hope’s headline slot at Lollapalooza 2022 in Chicago, where he became the first South Korean artist to headline a major American music festival.
Still: A Michael J Fox Movie
One of a few Sundance titles focused on the lives of longtime celebrities, including Brooke Shields, Judy Blume and Willie Nelson, Still: A Michael J Fox Movie, traces a scrappy Canadian kid’s rise to 80s Hollywood star and diagnosis with Parkinson’s at 29. The film, directed by David Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, He Named Me Malala), will reportedly incorporate documentary, scripted and archival elements as well as access to Fox and his family, on his long journey as one of the most famous faces of the degenerative disease. Apple Original Films has already bought the rights to the project, which will probably stream later in the year.