Hot docs: Penguins, kids and Dixie Chicks make documentaries cool

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When I read that HBO was running a Monday night documentary series this summer (beginning June 9), my first thought was that they’d be having a slate of earnest, humorless programming — which I suppose I should like, being a lesbian and all. Then I wondered why I had that stupid knee-jerk reaction. I mean, whether or not you like Michael Moore‘s self-importance and self-indulgence, there’s no denying that he’s made documentaries a commercially viable form of entertainment.

And documentaries are not inherently about dry, boring topics. In fact, they’re as likely to be about sex, drugs, violence or McDonald’s as any other type of programming. And even when they are about drier, sciency subjects, they get popular artists to record Academy Award–winning soundtracks and thank their lesbian spouses at the Oscars.


Photo credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

If you take a look at the HBO slate, the movies hit a wide range of subjects. (You can find the list and a short description of each one here.) A little depressingly, I suspect the big hit is going to be Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal.

If you didn’t catch the story when it was in the news a few years ago, everyone’s favorite former Hollywood madam opened a "stud farm," aka a legal brothel for straight women. It did not do well. But now we can watch and learn all about it. Which is really a public service because one prior documentary, two TV movies and a host of Heidi Fleiss-inspired themes in shows such as Sisters and Beverly Hills, 90210 wasn’t really enough Heidi for us.

But I can only judge so much because I’ll probably watch it. At least until I get grossed out and have to turn it off.

Regardless, I actually like plenty of non-tasteless documentaries. In fact, really good documentaries have been among my favorite movies in recent years.

Mad Hot Ballroom was one of the best movies of 2005.

How can you not love city kids learning to ballroom dance?

March of the Penguins is, without question, the best penguin movie I’ve ever seen.

And don’t try to tell me you didn’t cry when one of the penguin couples lost their egg. I simply won’t believe you.

Shut Up and Sing, by Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple, led me to take a road trip to see the Dixie Chicks in the last leg of their Accidents and Accusations tour.

I can’t think of any other movie that’s inspired me to drive 1,800 miles in one weekend.

Jesus Camp scared the bejesus out of me.

But I do love how it contributed to identifying Ted Haggard as one of the biggest hypocrites on earth.

And Young@Heart will almost certainly be my new favorite documentary as soon as I get around to seeing it.

Old folks singing the Ramones? That’s even better than city kids learning to ballroom dance.

But enough about the documentaries I like. Which ones do you like? And will you also get sucked into the Heidi Fleiss train wreck?

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