The increasing trend of unbalanced celebrity documentaries, from Beyoncé to Beckham, is cause for concern.
Welcome to the era of celebrity documentaries. If you haven’t been disconnected from society or living under a rock recently, you are probably aware that in the past year alone, various celebrities such as Taylor Swift, Pamela Anderson, Brooke Shields, Sylvester Stallone, Coleen Rooney, Robbie Williams, and even the Beckhams have been the subject of documentaries, many of which they have created themselves – all about their own lives. Most recently, on Friday, Beyoncé released “Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé”, a documentary in which she wrote, directed, produced, and narrated, transforming her latest tour into a lengthy production similar to one by Scorsese.
This is a prime example of sanitized celebrity storytelling. Netflix’s production, “Harry & Meghan,” featured the former royal couple sharing their love story and voicing their grievances against the British royal family and tabloid press. Interestingly, the show was co-produced by the couple’s own production company, Archewell. However, it conveniently left out any mention of Meghan’s previous marriage to Trevor Engelson and only included interviews that supported the couple’s narrative. Similarly, in an interview, Beckham avoided addressing rumors about his affair with former assistant Rebecca Loos and his controversial role as World Cup ambassador for Qatar, which reportedly earned him a whopping £150m. The film “Renaissance” also conveniently ignores the controversy surrounding Beyoncé’s exclusive performance in Dubai, a country where homosexuality is illegal. Despite rumors that she received $24m for this private concert, the film focuses on how the music in her album of the same name was influenced by her exposure to 80s ballroom culture through a gay family member.
The increase in self-produced celebrity documentaries that focus on personal stories is largely motivated by financial gain. Luke Hodson, the creator of Nerds Collective, a youth marketing agency, explains that we are currently in a morally ambiguous era where the financial worth of celebrities prohibits them from engaging in any behavior that could damage their public image. As a result, brands are careful about who they associate with and cannot risk being associated with someone who may have a controversial reputation.
The desire for content on their favorite celebrity drives fandoms to new levels of obsession. This is evident in Renaissance: A Film, where fans eagerly push past security to secure a spot in the audience, striking poses as they wait. Beyoncé makes a dramatic entrance, emerging from a cloud of smoke against a backdrop of flawless clouds, causing members of the audience to fan themselves and wipe away tears. The Beyhive is shown worshipping at the feet of Beyoncé, who sings Dangerously in Love with outstretched arms as her devoted followers weep. When her performance ends, they erupt in ecstatic screams.
Throughout the film, Beyoncé makes an effort to remind viewers that she, too, is imperfect. She expresses, “People don’t understand what I’ve gone through,” emphasizing her humanity rather than being perceived as a flawless machine. The documentary highlights some of the challenges she has faced, including technical difficulties during her Arizona performance and a vocal cord injury from her teenage years. However, these instances only serve to showcase Beyoncé’s exceptional abilities, as she ultimately triumphs in both situations. This subtle attempt aims to humanize someone whose public image has been carefully crafted, leaving little insight into the person behind the iconic figure. She repeatedly expresses gratitude for creating a “safe space” through her work, yet it’s difficult to believe that her queer fans would have felt equally safe at her show in Dubai.
Not all celebrities seeking to create their own documentary have chosen to present a sanitized version of their story. Instead, some have entrusted their storytelling to independent sources, resulting in productions that have been praised for their vulnerability, rawness, and lack of censorship. The documentary Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me, which debuted on Apple TV+ in November 2022, was directed by Alek Keshishian, known for his work on Madonna’s 1991 Truth or Dare documentary. Keshishian spent six years filming Gomez as she navigated a bipolar disorder diagnosis and the challenges of being a highly famous individual. The end result is a deeply personal film that Gomez herself has stated she will never watch again due to the difficulty of reliving those experiences.
Keshishian stated that there was a policy of not holding back on any topics, but as a filmmaker, it was important to know when and how to capture sensitive moments for the subject. During filming, Keshishian paused at one point to avoid adding to Gomez’s anxiety as she dealt with her mental health. Through this process, Keshishian was able to witness Selena’s growth and development in self-care and rebuilding her life. As their relationship deepened, Keshishian became more skilled at capturing moments without disrupting the scene.
Tyson Fury received similar praise for his recent Netflix series, At Home With the Furys, which provided an unfiltered look into the boxer’s experience with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder. His wife, Paris, was applauded for her honesty about the difficulties of being married to someone with unpredictable moods and decisions. However, it was later revealed that Fury found the filming process overwhelming and even attempted to pay the crew to leave his house. He has reportedly turned down an offer from Netflix for two more seasons.
Julia Nottingham is the founder of Dorothy Street Pictures. The company was responsible for producing two films, “The Real Wagatha Story” and “Pamela, a Love Story”, both of which did not involve the stars in question. Before approving a documentary, Nottingham considers the star’s story and whether it has value to share with the world. She explains that her goal is not to make people like Coleen and Pamela, but to help them understand these individuals. She cannot guarantee that people will love them, but she strives to promote understanding and ultimately, respect.
Keshishian is certain that all documentaries have biases, even when given permission to film a popular Hollywood figure. This is because the editing process inherently involves a subjective interpretation of events. The important question is: who holds the power to impose this subjectivity? Is it the filmmaker or the celebrity themselves?
It is worth noting that despite the lack of critical evaluation of celebrity documentaries, this has not diminished the public’s interest in them. In the week following its release, David Beckham was the top search term on Google, with a 2,100% increase in searches for the footballer. On Netflix, the first three episodes of Harry & Meghan were viewed for a total of 81.55 million hours globally in its debut week, making it the most watched documentary in a premiere week according to the streaming service. Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour movie also broke records, becoming the highest-grossing concert film upon its release in October. In each of these cases, the celebrities had full control over the stories they wanted to share.
The irony lies in the fact that by giving up control of their own stories, it becomes easier for audiences to see the true identities of celebrities like Gomez and Fury. The facade of fame is stripped away, revealing the harsh and often unpleasant reality of living in the public eye. While the chaos of their lives may not be appealing or attractive, it is authentic – filled with the same messiness that exists in most human experiences. In the highly controlled world of celebrity branding, there is no doubt about who they truly are. Portraying an unfiltered life on screen may be challenging, but when it is done without interference from the subjects, it can be truly mesmerizing to witness.