Best Documentary Movies of 1981
This Is Elvis
Though several actors portray Elvis Presley at different stages of his life, this documentary is comprised mostly of actual performance footage and interviews with Elvis, his fans and those close to him. This biographical docu-drama features rare footage of Elvis and dramatically recreated scenes from Elvis' life.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
Richard Feynman was a scientific genius with - in his words - a "limited intelligence". This dichotomy is just one of the characteristics that made him a fascinating subject. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out exposes us to many more of these intriguing attributes by featuring an extensive conversation with the acclaimed Nobel Prize winner. During the course of the interview, which was conducted in 1981, Feynman uses the undeniable power of the personal to convey otherwise challenging scientific theories. His colorful and lucid stories make abstract concepts tangible, and his warm presence is sure to inspire interest and awe from even the most reluctant student of science. His insights are profound, but his delivery is anything but dry and ostentatious.
The Killing of America
A documentary of the decline of America. Featuring footage (most exclusive to this film) from race riots to serial killers and much-much more.
The Decline of Western Civilization
The Los Angeles punk music scene circa 1980 is the focus of this film. With Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear, Germs, and X.
The man who could not see far enough
A film that uses literary, structural, autobiographical, and performance metaphors to construct a series of tableaux that evoke the act of vision, the limits of perception, and the rapture of space.
A Dream Called Walt Disney World
The perfect way to reminisce about your Walt Disney World vacation! It's all here, exquisitely photographed and fully narrated. From Liberty Square to Fantasyland, the file covers every part of the Magic Kingdom. There's much more, though... an entire resort playground with all the luxurious resort hotels and rustic campgrounds that make up the Vacation Kingdom. Here's a beautiful souvenir of the single most popular vacation destination in the world!
Early Errol Morris documentary intersplices random chatter he captured on film of the genuinely eccentric residents of Vernon, Florida. A few examples? The preacher giving a sermon on the definition of the word "Therefore," and the obsessive turkey hunter who speaks reverentially of the "gobblers" he likes to track down and kill.
Johnny Cash: Christmas in Scotland
The juxtaposition may seem strange, but the Cash clan’s roots are in Scotland—even if Johnny’s speculation about descent from the 12th-century King Malcolm may be more guesswork than genealogy. Andy Williams guest-stars.
The Man Who Saw Tomorrow
Hosted by Orson Welles, this documentary utilizes a grab bag of dramatized scenes, stock footage, TV news clips and interviews to ask: Did 16th century French astrologer and physician Nostradamus actually predict such events as the fall of King Louis XVI, the rise of Napoleon, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? And are there prophecies that have yet to come true?
Genesis - Three Sides Live
Three Sides Live is a 1981 concert film of the Abacab tour by British rock band Genesis. It tied in with the double live album of the same name. The songs featured are mostly from the group's then most recent albums Duke and Abacab, plus a medley that comprises extracts from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway ("In the Cage" and "The Colony of Slippermen") and Selling England by the Pound ("The Cinema Show"), leading into "Afterglow" from Wind & Wuthering.
AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Fred Astaire
Fred Astaire, known for his dazzling dance work in scores of memorable films and on television, is honored at this ninth celebration of the American Film Insitute's recognition of screen artists through the bestowal of its Life Achievement Award. The program was taped at a black-tie testimonial dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills on April 10, 1981.
Stations of the Elevated
Stations of the Elevated exposes viewers to an underground art scene- that is, one found exclusively on the sides of subways and train cars. A moving portrait of late-70's NYC, the film boasts a soundtrack by jazz legends Charles Mingus & Aretha Franklin.
Of Muppets & Men: The Making of the Muppet Show
Documentary about the work of puppeteer Jim Henson and his team in creating The Muppet Show.
The Day After Trinity
The Day After Trinity (a.k.a. The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb) is a 1980 documentary film directed and produced by Jon H. Else in association with KTEH public television in San Jose, California. The film tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967), the theoretical physicist who led the effort to build the first atomic bomb, tested in July 1945 at Trinity site in New Mexico. Featuring candid interviews with several Manhattan Project scientists, as well as newly declassified archival footage, The Day After Trinity was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 1980, and received a Peabody Award in 1981.
The Cramps: Live at Napa State Mental Hospital
The concert was recorded with a black-and-white video camera and a single microphone on June 13, 1978.
Urgh! A Music War
Urgh! A Music War is a British film released in 1982 featuring performances by punk rock, new wave, and post-punk acts, filmed in 1980. Among the artists featured in the movie are Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), Magazine, The Go-Go's, Toyah Willcox, The Fleshtones, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, X, XTC, Devo, The Cramps, Oingo Boingo, Dead Kennedys, Gary Numan, Klaus Nomi, Wall of Voodoo, Pere Ubu, Steel Pulse, Surf Punks, 999, UB40, Echo & the Bunnymen and The Police. These were many of the most popular groups on the New Wave scene; in keeping with the spirit of the scene, the film also features several less famous acts, and one completely obscure group, Invisible Sex, in what appears to be their only public performance.
The Making of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'
One of the first 'Making of...' movies to become a hit in its own right.
Today it's a symbol of strength and vitality. 135 years ago, it was a source of controversy. This documentary examines the great problems and ingenious solutions that marked the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. From conception to construction, it traces the bridge's transformation from a spectacular feat of heroic engineering to an honored symbol in American culture.
Great Movie Stunts: Raiders of the Lost Ark
A documentary hosted by Harrison Ford about the stunts of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.'
Berlin Tunnel 21
In Berlin in 1961, an American soldier and a German engineer join forces to build a tunnel under the Berlin Wall in order to smuggle out refugees, including the soldier's East German girlfriend.
A superb visual trick that will mystify its audience, this animated film transforms the commonplace into magic.
Filming 'The Trial'
In 1981, Welles gave a 90-minute question-and-answer session at the University of Southern California after a screening of The Trial. He had his cinematographer Gary Graver film the session with a view to editing highlights of the footage into the projected film. Graver observed, "A lot of people were there in the audience that day who are successful filmmakers now", as well as several noted film critics such as Joseph McBride and Todd McCarthy. However, Welles never got round to editing the raw footage. Its only use in Welles' lifetime was by BBC journalist Leslie Megahy for his 1982 Arena documentary on Welles. The documentary features a young man asking Welles whether he would agree he has been persecuted by The Establishment and the capitalist system, and Welles being somewhat bemused by the question.
Seeing in the Rain
Photographed through the windshield of a Vancouver city bus and edited according to the rhythms of the bus' windshield wiper, the film transforms the linear narrative of the bus ride into a temporal construction that can be described as cubist. The effect of the cutting strategy on the actual temporal organization of the film is as remarkable as its effect on our sense of time.
Urban Struggle: The Battle of the Cuckoo's Nest
Locals formed vigilante groups to fight it, Police used legal force to repress it, City officials wanted to ban it entirely. This never before released feature length documentary was filmed in the early 80's and exposes the punk rock scene that was going on at the infamous Cuckoo's Nest club owned by Jerry Roach.
Take It or Leave It
Autobiographical account of the cult 80's British pop group 'Madness (II)' , with members of the group playing themselves, charting their rise from humble beginnings as pub band The Invaders to chart success and their first overseas tour. The film follows the ups and downs of individual members of the group, and features all of their early hits including "The Prince", "One Step Beyond", "Baggy Trousers" and "Night Boat to Cairo"
Imagine the Sound
An examination, shown through both interviews and performances, of the avant-garde free jazz movement which reigned during the 1960s.
Document of the Dead
A documentary about George A. Romero's films, with a behind scenes look at Dawn of the Dead.
On Any Sunday II
Featuring Speedway World Champion Bruce Penhall, Brad Lackey, Bob Hannah, Kenny Roberts. World Champion Bruce Penhall is only one of the racing luminaries profiled in this motorcyclist’s cinematic bible. Thrill to the pulsating sound of high powered cycles in the desert, on the road, and tracks around the world. On Any Sunday II features interview and championship races with Brad Lackey, Bob Hannah, Kenny Roberts, and, of course, Penhall.
The Devil At Your Heels
Devil at Your Heels, traces the trials of stuntman Ken Carter who attempts a death defying aerial jump in a car. Not content with a normal jump, Ken Carter attempts a jump from Canada to the USA.
Shamans of the Blind Country
A documentary epic on magical healing in the Himalayas.
Kiss Me, Petruchio
A documentary about the 1978 stage production of The Taming of the Shrew by the New York City Shakespeare company at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Includes scenes from the production, interviews with Meryl Streep (Kate) and Raul Julia (Petruchio) as well as an introduction by producer Joseph Papp and audience commentary.
Electric Blue 006
Vanessa del Rio hosts this men's video magazine which features profiles on British photographer Suze Randall and transsexual adult film star Sulka, centerfold models Felicity (Michelle Bauer) and Terri (Barbara Peckinpaugh), celebrity nude Hazel O'Connor (complete with her music video for “Hanging Around”), clips from the adult Alice in Wonderland with Kristine DeBell and more.
Hatsu Yume (First Dream)
A series of shots showing the majesty of Japan.
A documentary about women's basic training in Fort Georgia.
Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die
Philo Bregstein tells us this film looks at Pasolini's life and art to explain why he died. The film traces Pasolini's life chronologically - family roots, hiding during World War II, teaching, moving to Rome, being arrested and acquitted many times, publishing poems, getting into film, being provocative, and being murdered. Interviews with Alberto Moravia, Laura Betti, Maria Antonietta Macciocch, and Bernard Bertolucci are inter-cut with readings of Pasolini's poems and with clips from four films - primarily the Gospel According to St. Matthew - to illustrate his changing ideas and points of view. Bregstein makes a case for Pasolini's being lynched.
N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman
This film provides a broad overview of Ju/'hoan life, both past and present, and an intimate portrait of N!ai, a Ju/'hoan woman who in 1978 was in her mid-thirties. N!ai tells her own story, and in so doing, the story of Ju/'hoan life over a thirty year period. "Before the white people came we did what we wanted," N!ai recalls, describing the life she remembers as a child: following her mother to pick berries, roots, and nuts as the season changed; the division of giraffe meat; the kinds of rain; her resistance to her marriage to /Gunda at the age of eight; and her changing feelings about her husband when he becomes a healer. As N!ai speaks, the film presents scenes from the 1950's that show her as a young girl and a young wife. The uniqueness of N!ai may lie in its tight integration of ethnography and history. While it portrays the changes in Ju/'hoan society over thirty years, it never loses sight of the individual, N!ai.
Drawn together from two decades of itinerant shooting in Europe, Travel Songs evokes Jonas Mekas' improvisatory approach to sightseeing, with Assisi, Moscow and Stockholm all filtered through his singularly animated lens. Five different ‘songs’ or segments: footage from Avila (Spain), Stockholm, Moscow, Assisi, Italy.
A 65-year-old cleaning woman for a professional dancers' exercise studio performs her job while telling us in voiceover about her life, hopes, goals, and feelings. A challenge to mainstream media's ongoing stereotypes of women of color who earn their living as domestic workers, this seemingly simple documentary achieves a quiet revolution: the expressive portrait of a fully realized individual.
Long Train Running: A History of the Oakland Blues
Marlon Riggs and Peter Webster’s thesis project reflects on the heyday of Oakland blues in the late 1940s and ’50s, when an influx of African American shipyard workers mostly hailing from Louisiana and Texas arrived in the Bay Area. Combining vintage photographs, archival footage, interviews, and performances at venues like Eli’s Mile High Club, Riggs and Webster chronicle Oakland’s vibrant past while revealing an uncertain present.
From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China
A beautiful expression of two differing cultures brought together by the warmth and dedication of a great musician and humanitarian. In 1979, as China re-opened its doors to the West, virtuoso Isaac Stern received an unprecedented government invitation to tour the country.
Inside the Coppola Personality
Monte Hellman's short portrait of Francis Ford Coppola discussing business and craft at home and on the set of his Zoetrope Studios.
Exhausted: John C. Holmes, the Real Story
It's hard, in the year 2001, to remember what porn was like in the 70s. In this decade when pornstars are on TV, date movie stars, and are on album covers, the secret world of men in raincoats attending sleazy theaters is hard to imagine. Now most people see porn on their cable or on video or DVD. Once upon a time, though, it was a big deal for a porn star to hit the mainstream, and John Holmes did just that. With a 14 inch endowment and not so good looks, Holmes made thousands of movies and slept with thousands of women. He became well known for his Johnny Wadd series, where he was an international man of mystery and hardcore sex. Eventually he got heavily into drugs, got involved in a brutal murder, and finally died of AIDS.
Theater in Trance
Rainer Werner Fassbinder visits for two weeks the "Theater der Welt" festival 1981 in Cologne. 30 companies showed in over 100 performances their own visions of a new theater. Framed by Fassbinder's reading of one of the famous essays on theater: Antonin Artaud's "The Theater and its double". The audience is left to wonder how much of Artaud's radical and beautiful vision is realized in contemporary theater.
MODEL shows male and female models at work on TV commercials, fashion shows, magazine covers, and advertising for a variety of products, including designer collections, fur coats, sports clothes and automobiles. The models are seen at work with photographers whose techniques illustrate different styles of fashion and product photography. The business aspect of running an agency is also shown: interviewing prospective models, career counseling, arranging portfolios, talking with clients, and planning trips. The film presents a view of the intersections of fashion, business, advertising, photography, television and fantasy.
See What I Say
See What I Say is a 1981 American short documentary film produced by Linda Chapman, Pam LeBlanc and Freddi Stevens. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. The subjects of the film are hearing-impaired women who discuss their use of sign language.
Black Sabbath & Blue Öyster Cult: Black and Blue
BLACK SABBATH and BLUE ÖYSTER CULT - Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Uniondale, New York - October 17, 1980. Track Listing: The Marshall Plan [BOC; promo], War Pigs, Neon Knights, N.I.B. [Sabbath], Dr. Music, Cities On Flame, Divine Wind [BOC], Iron Man, Guitar Solo, Paranoid [Sabbath], Godzilla, Drum Solo, Roadhouse Blues [BOC], Heaven And Hell [Sabbath], Born To Be Wild [BOC], Die Young [Sabbath] Professionally filmed for the movie, BLACK AND BLUE. 3 Sabbath songs from this movie were first shown on the 12/6/80 episode of DON KIRSHNER’S ROCK CONCERT. The movie itself premiered in NYC on 12/19/1980. BLACK AND BLUE made the rounds on the 'Midnight Movie' circuit during the early 80's. It was released on VHS in Jan. 1981 and went out of print within a short time. It could only be found for many years as a Japanese import or bootleg.
Magic in the Sky
Magic in the Sky investigates the impact of television on the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic. The film also documents the establishment of the first Inuit-language television network, called Inukshuk, which began broadcasting to six Inuit communities in December 1980. The Inuit's efforts to create an indigenous television network mirrors the struggle of any culture trying to preserve its unique identity.
Against Wind and Tide: A Cuban Odyssey
Against Wind and Tide: A Cuban Odyssey is a 1981 American documentary film about the Mariel boatlift, which was first broadcast on PBS the week of June 1, 1981. Written by John Brousek, the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
A tribute to the spirit and humanity of people who are physically different from the average: very tall and very large men and women, a bearded woman and her long-time husband, Siamese twins joined at the midsection, and several little people including actor Billy Barty. We meet some at Gibsonton, Florida, where carnival folk winter. They talk about their lives and accomplishments. The camera also goes on the road to visit a grandfather with a distinctive face, a legless mechanic from Kentucky on a second honeymoon in LA, a marathon runner and motivational speaker who has no feet, a karate student with partial limbs, and an armless, down-to-earth mom in Texas.
The Song of Stockholm
Sightseeing Stockholm offbeat through the lens of Jonas Mekas.