It’s been a string of banner years for documentaries, and 2020 seems poised to follow suit, with a number of films examining pop stardom, ambition and celebrity. Documentaries detailing (with cooperation) the lives of such figures as Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Hillary Clinton are all set to premiere on global streaming services this year, as well as topical features on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and gun safety activism after Parkland. Here are 10 of the most buzzworthy documentaries to catch in 2020:
No second name, subtitle or qualification necessary – the multi-hyphenate fashion mogul and singer will get her own film treatment in 2020 to stream on Amazon in a whopping $25m deal. Director Peter Berg, who also directed the Barbadian singer in Battleship, has reportedly worked on the project for years, amassing over 1,200 hours of footage. Rihanna takes an intimate, expansive look at the superstar’s development into one of the world’s biggest pop acts and pioneer of the Fenty beauty and fashion lines while providing a window into the star’s “personality, humor, philosophies on work, family and love”.
In the nearly two years since a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school ended 17 lives, the survivors in Parkland, Florida, have been bravely, doggedly visible – through social media, the student-led March for Our Lives protests, and in documentaries such as Song of Parkland and the activism-focused After Parkland. This month, there’s Us Kids, premiering at Sundance. Directed by Kim A Snyder – who also spent years befriending the families and community members torn asunder by another horrid school shooting for her 2017 film Newtown – Us Kids will track the students of MSD high school as they became unexpected, and effective, youth leaders and activists.
Taylor Swift: Miss Americana
In another high-profile documentary on music stardom, Taylor Swift: Miss Americana will premiere at Sundance and on Netflix at a still unspecified date. The film will cover, according to director Lana Wilson, a “transformational period in [Swift’s] life as she learns to embrace her role not only as a songwriter and performer, but as a woman harnessing the full power of her voice”. In other words: probably the past three or so years in Swift’s career, a time in which the singer retreated from the spotlight following a very public feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, embraced a more outsized political voice (especially on LGBTQ+ rights), released two albums and became a leading voice for artist compensation in the music industry.
The Cost of Silence
Also premiering at Sundance this month is a film on another still-unfolding tragedy: the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which dumped an estimated 130m gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico on 20 April 2010. Film-maker Mark Manning, himself a former deep-sea oilfield diver, made The Cost of Silence after years of investigating the disaster from its outset, to the cleanup itself full of toxic chemicals, to what he has called an effort from petrochemical companies and the federal government to downplay its damaging effects on public health.
Rihanna isn’t the only music star with a massive documentary payday – just a week before news broke on Rihanna’s Amazon deal, teen phenom Billie Eilish reportedly signed her own $25m deal with Apple TV+ for a film on her stratospheric rise in 2019. Through access to friends and family and behind-the-scenes footage of her public appearances, the still-untitled film will follow the 18-year-old’s launch from cult fandom to superstardom with the release of her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in March.
Amid the slew of examine-the-life documentaries out this year, perhaps no subject has quite the ethical question mark as much as Lance Armstrong, the cyclist whose battle with cancer captured the public’s attention for years before the admission that he cheated with doping left his reputation in tatters. In Lance, director Marina Zenovich (Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind) reportedly received unprecedented access to the fallen star, producing a film Sundance promises will be “a powerful study of that 21st-century phenomenon: the celebrity who falls spectacularly and publicly from grace”.
Executive-produced by Mark Wahlberg, the HBO docuseries McMillions dives into the genuinely insane story of the McDonald’s Monopoly game fraud, a decades-long scheme which netted millions in illegitimate prize money until the FBI unraveled the racket in 2000. Premiering on 3 February, McMillions will explore the scam through archival footage and interviews with FBI agents, defrauded McDonald’s executives, lawyers and the prizewinners themselves.
Also receiving the cooperative documentary treatment this year: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whose four-part series Hillary will premiere on Hulu on 6 March. Directed by Nanette Burstein, the project features interviews with Clinton, her husband Bill, and close friends and journalists interspersed with recollections from the former first lady’s journey from midwestern genius to a few electoral college votes shy of the White House.
The Perfect Weapon
With the 2020 election now less than a year away and its security from foreign interference a matter of impeachable interest, few documentaries seem more timely than HBO’s The Perfect Weapon, based on the book by the New York Times national security correspondent, David E Sanger. The film, directed by John Maggio, promises to take viewers on the frontlines of cyberwars through exclusive interviews with top military and intelligence officials coupled with on-the-ground reporting, revealing “the rise of cyber-conflict as the primary way nations now compete and sabotage each other”.
Director Nathan Grossman has followed 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from her 2018 school strike in Sweden to world parliaments and the United Nations. The film, working title Greta, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the commitment and visceral urgency that have brought Time magazine’s person of the year, and her mission of addressing and ending the climate crisis now, to the height of visibility. It will debut on Hulu sometime in 2020.
In the vein of last year’s Midnight Traveler, a documentary filmed by an Afghan migrant family entirely on their cellphones, Saudi Runaway will follow Muna, a young Saudi Arabian woman, as she documents her impending arranged marriage and plans for escape on her phone. Compiled by the German film-maker Susanne Regina Meures, Muna’s secret iPhone footage reveals “an equal-parts vulnerable and riveting narrative that is wholly alive with fear and hope for a better life”.
Unnamed film on sexual harassment in the music industry
In December, it was revealed that Apple TV+ had acquired streaming rights to several Oprah Winfrey-produced projects, including a documentary which captured an as-yet-unrevealed source as she contemplated going public with her story of sexual assault by a prominent figure in the music industry. Days later, the Los Angeles Times reported the source as Drew Dixon, a former executive at Def Jam records, who accused mogul Russell Simmons of harassment and rape in 1995 in an article with the New York Times. The still-untitled doc is helmed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the duo behind the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War, on life after sexual assault, and The Hunting Ground, on sexual assault at college campuses.