Welcome to the age of the celebrity documentary. Unless you have been living off-grid or under a rock of late, you’ll know all too well that in the last year alone, Taylor Swift, Pamela Anderson, Brooke Shields, Sylvester Stallone, Coleen Rooney, Robbie Williams and even the Beckhams have been the focus of documentaries, many of which they have made themselves – about themselves. Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé was released on Friday, for which the singer wrote, directed, produced and narrated a documentary that turns her latest tour into a Scorsese-length production.
This is sanitised celebrity storytelling at its very worst. Netflix’s Harry & Meghan, which saw the two former royals lay bare their love story and air their grievances about the British royal family and tabloid press, was co-made with their production company Archewell. It made no mention of Meghan’s first ill-fated marriage to Trevor Engelson, nor did it interview anybody whose opinions seemed to challenge the narrative arc that the couple were presenting. Beckham skirted around directly addressing either his alleged affair with former assistant Rebecca Loos or his controversial World Cup ambassadorship for Qatar, which was worth a reported £10m. Renaissance fails to mention the controversy surrounding Beyoncé’s invite-only performance earlier this year in Dubai, a country in which homosexuality is outlawed – rumoured to have earned her $24m for the performance, making it the highest-paid private concert in history. Instead, the film focuses on how the music on the album it shares a name with was inspired by Beyoncé being introduced to 80s ballroom culture by a gay family member.
In part, the rise of self-authored, narrative-skewing celeb documentaries is driven by money. “Culturally, we’re living in an ethically strange time,” says Luke Hodson, founder of youth marketing agency Nerds Collective. “The commercial value of talent means that they can’t afford to do anything that runs the risk of eroding the public’s perception of them. Brands are cautious enough about who they partner with, they can’t then be seen to align with somebody problematic.”
It is also driven by fandoms’ increasingly ravenous desire for content on their favoured celebrity. It’s all too visible in Renaissance: A Film, which opens with fans racing past security to secure their place in the audience, voguing as they wait. Beyoncé then emerges from a plume of smoke against a screen showing a sky full of perfect clouds as members of the audience fan their faces and wipe tears from their eyes. We see the Beyhive worship at the altar of Beyoncé, who sings Dangerously in Love with her arms outstretched to her disciples as they weep. When she is finished, they scream hysterically.
Beyoncé is at pains to remind audiences throughout the film that she, too, is flawed. “People don’t know what I’ve been through,” she says, before adding that she is human, “not a machine.” The documentary includes some of the adversity she has endured: there is footage of the audio cutting out at her Arizona show in August and of the vocal cord injury she experienced as a teenager. But these examples only serve as confirmation of Beyoncé’s Olympian abilities as in both cases, she eventually roars back to full capacity. It’s a thinly veiled attempt to humanise somebody whose public image has been so meticulously orchestrated that few people have any real grasp on the person behind the brand. She reiterates her gratitude throughout the documentary for being able to provide a “safe space.” It’s hard to believe that any of her queer fans would have felt safe at her show in Dubai.
Not every celebrity who wants their own documentary has resorted to a whitewashed version of their tale, however. Some have devolved the power of their storytelling to independent sources – leading to productions that have been called “vulnerable”, “raw” and “without filters.” Apple TV+’s Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me, which premiered in November 2022, was made by Alek Keshishian, who also directed Madonna’s 1991 Truth or Dare documentary. Keshishian filmed Gomez for six years as she was grappling with a bipolar disorder diagnosis and the reality of being one of the most famous people alive. The result is a film so intimate that Gomez herself said she “will never watch it again” because it is so “hard” for her to bear witness to.
“There was a ‘nothing is off-limits’ approach, but part of my job is to be delicate enough to know when and how to film things that may be uncomfortable for the subject,” says Keshishian – who paused filming at one point to avoid adding to Gomez’s anxiety while she struggled with her mental health. “It also let me see the growth in Selena and her ability to understand, take care of herself and rebuild her life. As we got closer, my ability to shoot without affecting the scene itself also increased.”
Similar acclaim was heaped on Tyson Fury, whose recent fly-on-the-wall Netflix series, At Home With the Furys, featured a seemingly unfiltered look at the boxer’s journey with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder. Fury’s wife, Paris, was praised for being honest about the challenges of being married to someone whose moods and decisions are unpredictable. Upon the show’s release, it was revealed that Fury had found the filming process “overwhelming” and tried to pay the crew to leave his house. He has since reportedly rejected an offer from Netflix for two more series.
Julia Nottingham founded Dorothy Street Pictures, which executive-produced Rooney’s The Real Wagatha Story and Anderson’s Pamela, a Love Story, neither of which were produced by the stars in question. Before greenlighting a documentary, Nottingham asks herself what the star’s story is and whether there is any value in bringing it into the world. “With Coleen and Pamela, my job wasn’t to make people like them, but to help people understand them. I can’t promise people are going to love them,” she says. “But I give a pretty good shot at hoping people understand them and usually, if people understand you, they have respect for you.”
Despite being given the go-ahead to film one of Hollywood’s brightest young things, Keshishian is clear. “All documentaries have bias. By its very definition, the editing process introduces a subjective interpretation of events. The question is who is imposing that subjectivity? Is it the film-maker … or the celebrity?”
It should be said that the lack of a genuine, critical eye being applied to celebrity documentaries doesn’t seem to have affected viewers’ appetite for them. In the week after Beckham’s release, David Beckham was the top trending topic on Google, with searches spiking for the footballer by 2,100%. On Netflix, the first three episodes of Harry & Meghan recorded 81.55m viewing hours around the world after its debut, which, according to the streaming service, is “the highest view hours of any documentary title in a premiere week”. Swift’s The Eras Tour movie became the highest-grossing concert film of all time upon its release in October. In all of these cases, the stars created the stories they wanted to tell.
However, the irony is that, in relinquishing control of their own narratives, it is clearer for audiences to see exactly who stars such as Gomez and Fury are. The veneer of fame is peeled back, illuminating the darker, often ugly reality of life in the spotlight. The messiness of their lives might be unappealing, uncomfortable and unsightly, but it’s real – it’s punctured with much of the same mess that peppers most human lives. And that, in the suffocating world of talent brand management, leaves no doubt as to who they are. Depicting a life on-screen in its entirety may be hard, but when done free of interference from subjects, it really can be magic to watch.