16 celebrity documentaries that'll leave you starstruck
Get new insights into your favorite stars
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Celebrities are just like us. Sure, you may not have an assistant who picks out the yellow starbursts because they’re gross or millions of people who follow your every move, but beneath all of that, they’re people. They’re flawed, they have goals and setbacks, and they even get a little starstruck themselves.
However, this is easy for us to forget, because we normally get to access our favorite celebs in the ways that they (and their publicists) want us to see them. But celebrity documentaries often change that. In some cases, it’s their chance to tell the story we’ve only heard from the headlines and in others, we learn the perspectives of their friends and family members about those stories as well.
With so many good ones released in the past few years, here are a few of the best celebrity documentaries on Hulu, HBO Max, and other streaming platforms that can be great for film-lovers who want to learn a thing or two about some of the biggest names in the world.
1. Framing Britney Spears (2021)
Conservatorships are not new, but most people didn’t know what they were until Britney Spears came under one. Her conservatorship has been the heart of the #FreeBritney movement, which has gained traction over the last four or so years. Framing Britney Spears not only explains the movement, but also how we got here.
The most compelling part of this documentary is seeing how Britney was the butt of every joke for years, while she clearly was in the midst of a mental health crisis. But in the early 2000s, conversations around self-care and mental wellness we’re reserved for the “hippie” crowds and discussions about toxic masculinity and the ways that women are sexualized at young ages, scrutinized and expected to behave were reserved for feminist circles. Society has since grown and these are normal conversations for anyone and everyone, which allowed a lot of people to re-examine how Britney was unfairly treated while watching this documentary.
2. Dancing with the Devil (2021)
If the phrase “You never know what someone is really going through” were to be personified, I think it would be Demi Lovato. While filming a completely different documentary in 2018, some people around her thought she was “happy” and “healthy” as they followed her Tell Me You Love Me World tour. Yet, during that very tour she had a near-fatal overdose, which we now know led to her having a heart attack, three strokes, brain damage and losing partial vision in one of her eyes.
That documentary was scrapped and she bravely decided to move forward in telling her story in this one, Dancing with the Devil. It’s definitely tough to watch as she talks about the ways that addiction, sobriety, and eating disorders shaped her life from childhood to adulthood, but it’s so brave of her to share her high and low points to help fans better understand her and how far she’s come.
3. Allen v. Farrow (2021)
Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein have a lot in common: They both had decades-long careers in Hollywood, both have been at the center of the #MeToo and Times Up movements, and they both were exposed with the help of two people who happen to call Mia Farrow “mom.”
Harvey Weinstein’s crimes are familiar to most because Ronan Farrow’s reporting in 2017 helped to give voice to countless women whose stories needed to be told. The accusations against Woody Allen first broke headlines in the early 1990s, but HBO’s Allen v. Farrow gave Dylan Farrow the opportunity to share more of her story about the abuse allegations against her father and how that experience shaped her life. While Woody Allen doesn’t appear in this film, he doesn’t need to be because there are decades worth of interviews of him denying everything that Dylan and Mia have ever had to say. This is their long overdue opportunity to be heard.
4. Tina (2021)
Anna Mae Bullock. Tina. Tina Turner. Whatever you call her, she’s iconic. Raised on a cotton field to sharecroppers, Ms. Tina Turner would grow up to earn the moniker the “Queen of Rock and Roll.”
The journey from these two worlds never seemed easy, but her new documentary, Tina, shows exactly how tumultuous that road was. Despite revolutionizing music, the 81-year-old Tina Turner reflected on her life in this film by saying, “It wasn’t a good life; the good did not balance the bad.” That’s heavy and so is learning about those moments of good and bad through the course of this story.
Another astonishing thing that Tina says in this doc is “goodbye.” While doing press for the release, she notoriously said this film is her final farewell to fans that adore her, so she can spend the rest of her life living for her. We have to respect that boundary and good news for us is that we’ll always have Tina and the ability to stream Proud Mary.
5. This is Paris (2020)
Paris Hilton set the blueprint for building a personal brand in the digital age before anyone else was doing it with a reality show, brand partnerships (ahem Carl’s Jr.), and saying things for shock value, like she didn’t know what Walmart was despite literally knowing the Walton family personally. She also did all of this before anyone knew who Kim Kardashian was.
As a rather intelligent blonde who capitalized on the charade of being a dumb one, Paris Hilton’s business acumen has always been hinted at. But we’ve never had any hints of the abuse and pain she experienced as a teenager before she became a household name. This is Paris is Paris’ chance to tell that story herself and it’s a sad one that highlights all that glitters isn’t gold.
6. Miss Americana (2020)
So much of Taylor Swift’s public persona has been talked about through the lens of the people around her: the men she’s dated, the friends in her “girl gang,” and celebrities like Kanye West. Miss Americana finally gives us more by allowing us the opportunity to hear her opinions, as she speaks about politics, her mental health, and life on the road and at home.
Hearing those thoughts and vulnerable moments are a big deal because she’s someone who has spent most of her life in the public eye trying to be the “good girl” that she was told she had to be. Equally important is seeing her creative process because as a pop superstar, we get to hear and enjoy her art, but allowing us to see how it’s made unlocks a new level of appreciation for her work.
7. Kid 90 (2021)
It must be said that teenagers are completely (and unnecessarily) chaotic. Aren’t you glad you outgrew being a teenager before Instagram and TikTok? Ironically, documenting teenage angst is what makes Soleil Moon Frye’s Kid 90 so fascinating, because shortly after Punky Brewster ended, she picked up a camera and started recording everything.
While this might be unimpressive to teenagers today, it’s sort of insane considering cameras in the 1990s were like cinder blocks (so I’ve been told) and you had nowhere to share the video once you recorded it except a VCR. And yet, Soleil recorded everything as she grew up in show business, and saved every voicemail and diary for 20 years. Now she’s pulled it all together, along with interviews with her childhood friends like Brian Austin Green and David Arquette, to show the world an unscripted account of what it was like to be a teenager in the 1990s, well before anyone was “liking,” “sharing,” and “posting” their lives with the world.
8. The Last Dance (2020)
If you’re looking to settle the debate of who is the greatest basketball player of time, Jordan or James, The Last Dance won’t give you a clear-cut answer. It will, however, give you insight to moments on and off the court in the most astonishing era of the NBA that is known as Michael Jordan’s career. Seeing the games is one thing, but to know what was happening inside the mind of someone leading his team to an NBA ring during game five of the finals with the flu.
9. Dolly Parton: Here I Am (2019)
Dolly Parton’s song, 9 to 5, has become a staple in my karaoke repertoire and my shower concert world tour line-up. That’s all I really knew about this country music legend, but it was enough to get me to watch Here I Am and I’m so glad that I did.
Her 65-year career has left a legacy in each decade of career: She was singing about sexist double standards in 1968 before the women’s movement; her 1973 song, I Will Always Love You, was a hit that would be covered by Whitney Houston in 1992 and break records; and she served as a major inspiration for the film 9 to 5.
And most importantly, she was on several episodes of Hannah Montana between 2006 and 2011! Even if country music isn’t your jam, this documentary is a must-watch for all of her other pop culture accomplishments and contributions.
10. Homecoming (2019)
I was hesitant to include documentary concerts, but for Beyoncé, I made an exception. Part of the genius of Homecoming is that it stitches together two intricately choreographed and produced performances as if it were one, but it also weaves in the behind-the-scenes details of creating such a production.
Beyoncé is relatively private for being one of the most famous and recognized living performers in the world, so getting little tidbits about how she had to care for her body after a high-risk pregnancy to do this show is enlightening. She was the first Black woman to headline Coachella (a year after she was originally supposed to), and it’s cool to see some of the internal things that inspire and push her to deliver the creativity that we are so lucky to consume.
11. Betty White: The First Lady of Television (2018)
For those of us who are not 99-years-old, the name “Betty White” conjures a long-winded St. Olaf story delivered by the one and only Rose from Golden Girls. Or maybe Sue Ann from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But Betty White is a heavyweight in Hollywood history and has done so much outside of the characters she’s iconically played.
As herself, she was a radio personality in the 1940s, a producer and sitcom star in the 1950s and a staple on the 1960s game-show circuit. With interviews from her famous celebrity friends and the First Lady of TV herself, Betty White: The First Lady of Television that will leaving you singing, Thank you for being a friend.
12. Sharp Edges (1986)
In 1994, Tonya Harding’s name became forever linked with Nancy Kerrigan’s, but believe it or not, she had a life before the “whack heard around the world.” Sharp Edges, made in 1986 by a film student at Yale University, gives an intimate (and slightly grainy look) at her life on and off the rink as a 15-year-old.
If you watched 2017’s I, Tonya (starring Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding and also streaming on Hulu), you’ll remember those “interview” scenes with Allison Janney as LoVona Harding. It felt stranger than fiction watching Tonya’s mother talk about her daughter while wearing a fur coat with a parrot on her shoulder, until I watched Sharp Edges and saw that’s exactly what LoVona wore while being interviewed about her daughter for this documentary!
13. Tiger (2021)
The accomplishments of some athletes are overshadowed by their scandals and that’s 100% the case with Tiger Woods. A 2009 cheating scandal (which continuously unfolded for months on end) seemed to overwrite his legendary golfing career.
We’ve never heard much outside of the tabloid headlines until the Tiger documentary was released. Tiger was not involved in this telling of his story, but some of those closest to him from his childhood, career, and cheating scandal filled in some gaps from their perspective in this four-hour documentary film.
14. Being Serena (2018)
Gentle reminder: Serena Williams won a Grand Slam title while pregnant. If that’s not peak athleticism, then what is? But how do you top that and restore your body back to peak athleticism after nearly dying in childbirth?
Being Serena allowed Serena to explore these questions, the pressure she puts on herself, and who she is off the court. Fear, Strength, Family, Change and Resolve are the episode titles of this five-part HBO series, which lets you know the type of vulnerability to expect from Serena, her husband, her mother, and siblings.
15. Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017) and Whitney (2018)
Whitney Houston was a once-in-a-generation talent, which made her swift rise as “America’s Pop Princess” even more celebratory and her descent into addiction even more devastating. There’s a lot of story to tell when talking about Whitney Houston, which is why two documentaries are sharing this spot on this list. Released first, Whitney: Can I Be Me, starts with the singer’s death and chronicles her meteoric rise to fame through old interviews from Whitney and those who knew her.
Released a year later, Whitney, also looks back at her life but places more emphasis on how her traumas and secrets played a role in the addiction that ultimately took her life. They’re both fascinating and truly eye-opening.
16. Amy (2015)
Amy Winehouse’s story reflects the worst parts of fame: incredibly talented, highly publicized, constantly scrutinized and internally struggling. Unfortunately, she suffered the ultimate consequence when she joined the “27 Club” (she died at 27, the same age that other legendary artists have died like Jimi Hindrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Jean-Michael Basquiat).
But with Amy, we get an opportunity to experience her magic again and hear from those closest to her about her struggles in her personal life as she dealt with fame that she wasn’t prepared for.
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