Dear Documentary Filmmakers: You’re enamored w your artist/musician subject – don’t assume that the uninitiated will be too.
This is a common problem I’ve found with docs focused on art or music. To speak specifically about music docs, by far the more abused subgenre of the two, many filmmakers make the mistake of assuming that just because they like a musician or band, it’s self-evident that everyone else does too. They get permission to follow some band on tour and/or in the recording studio, and the result is a generic behind the scenes “band on tour” doc. Unfortunately, more often than not, it doesn’t go much further than this – minimal or no effort is made to convey why the filmmaker thinks they’re worth following as subjects, or why the audience should care if they aren’t already fans.
Just as the best sports documentaries are not really just about sports, the better non-fiction projects dealing with artists or musicians are not just about an individual or group’s art or music. If an audience member wants to appreciate their creative output, s/he can go to a gallery, flip through a book, or listen to their music – a documentary about them should do more than serve as a slideshow presentation or music video; it should move beyond simply appreciating their work and get to something that is not necessarily or not easily understood about them and their work from the work itself. This can involve delving into their backgrounds, psychology, inspirations, or conflicts – really anything that has more weight to it than just showing them perform their latest album on stage in between montages of life on the tour bus.
If you do this successfully, it shouldn’t matter if your viewers have an encyclopedic knowledge of the band, or if instead they hate the specific musical genre – you can give them something greater to engage with regardless of their music taste. This will be a lot more satisfying than watching an obscure band on tour – most bands have more or less the same tour experiences anyway.
I should note that this applies to both the most niche musician out there or to the most famous – the only benefits of the latter are that more of your potential audience is familiar with them and there may be more of a celebrity curiosity factor, but don’t let that serve as too much of a safety net. A boring doc about a famous band is still a boring doc.