By LAURA M. HOLSON
New York Times
It's 1965: The Beatles play a historic concert at Shea Stadium. A restless 16-year-old from Levittown, N.Y., named Billy Joel is inspired to become a musician. He's a hit with the Brendas and Eddies from Long Island he sings about.
Fast-forward to 2008: Joel plays the last concert at Shea Stadium before the Mets' home is demolished. Decides to make a documentary about it. Paul McCartney shows up. Sold-out crowd goes wild. So does Joel's producing team, which spends more than $4 million of his money on the biopic.
"I am opening my wrist and writing this down in blood," Joel said in an interview after he was told exactly how much he had spent on Last Play at Shea. " 'Oh, my God,' I said, 'Don't spend so much money.' " Music, not film, is his passion. "I don't want to be in the movie business," he said.
Say goodbye to Hollywood, Billy Joel. There are plenty of celebrities lined up to nudge you offscreen. Nearly a dozen documentaries about famous people have been released recently or are seeking theatrical distribution in the coming months, some of them commissioned by the subjects themselves.
These films feature, among others, style mavens (Halston, Vidal Sassoon), comedians (Joan Rivers), filmmakers (Roger Corman), musicians (Rush, the Doors), publishing magnates (Hugh Hefner) and disgraced politicos (Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer).
Celebrities used to eschew the documentary as little more than late-night cable fare. And such films rarely, if at all, make a profit. But with interest in last year's The September Issue (which really was about Vogue editor Anna Wintour, wasn't it?) and image-boosting movies about the bad-boy producer Robert Evans or the disgraced boxer Mike Tyson, some are embracing documentaries as a visual editorial for the Internet era.
Twitter, Facebook and TMZ have made it difficult for celebrities to manipulate their public persona. A sympathetic documentary can be the first step in rehabbing a damaged reputation (think Tyson or Spitzer) or in the case of Sassoon or Rush, reminding viewers of an aging icon's cultural relevance.
"Joan Rivers used to talk about how she couldn't get a gig, or about all the jokes people said behind her back," said Jane Rosenthal, a founder of New York's Tribeca Film Festival. "Now, suddenly, people are talking about Joan Rivers again."
Some of the movies, like Joel's, are self-financed. Others, like the much-talked-about documentaries on Rivers or Spitzer, were financed independently but filmed with the cooperation of their subjects.
No one can blame the subjects for wanting their say. The hunger for celebrity gossip can be a curse, particularly in an age when every drunken stumble can be digitally captured. It is no wonder, then, that celebrities are willing to be interviewed in their most private moments, even if it means abandoning all editorial control.
"There is a demand for what is true and real, or what is represented as true and real," said James Toback, who directed Tyson. "Movies that are biographies of real people are a natural extension of that phenomenon."
Alex Gibney is a veteran filmmaker, having directed the Academy Award-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and, more recently, the untitled Spitzer documentary that was shown at Tribeca this year. The new movie chronicles the former New York governor's demise after he was caught in a liaison with a prostitute. "My situation with Eliot was difficult," Gibney explained. "We went to him and said, 'We are doing this whether you cooperate or not.' "
Gibney and Spitzer had several private conversations before the former governor agreed to participate. "For Eliot, it was a calculated risk," Gibney said. "But by talking, he had an opportunity to influence, even though he had no editorial oversight."
In some ways, Gibney conceded, Spitzer's openness did affect the film's tone. "When you speak with someone face to face, you tend to be more sympathetic," he said.
Other times, though, subjects can push too hard. Ricki Stern, the director of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, is the daughter of Rivers' best friend, Marjorie. Like Gibney, she made no agreements with the 77-year-old comedian, who allowed a small crew to follow her for a year. Still, Stern said, sighing deeply, "Joan certainly had many opinions."
The two watched an early cut of the film on a small television in the study of Rivers' apartment last November. At first Rivers offered little suggestions. "Then Joan's crazy obsessiveness kicked in," Stern said.
A week before Thanksgiving, Stern received a three-page e-mail with specific notes. "Point Number 13: boring, boring, boring. Who is going to care?" Stern said, pointing out one of them.
Rivers laughed when told about Stern's complaint. "Hey, don't ask me if you don't want me to tell you what I think," she said. (The filmmakers ignored most of her objections.) Rivers balked at an early scene where she walked by a photograph of her late husband, Edgar Rosenberg, and swore at it. (He committed suicide in 1987.) "Sure, I'm still mad at him," Rivers said. "But that's the last thing people are going to see me saying to him."
Sheila Nevins, who heads HBO's documentary division, had this to say about making celebrity documentaries: "It's very difficult to make something that's honest and doesn't hurt someone."
Which led to her next observation: "I don't know how many of these films coming out are objective." Or will make a profit, for that matter. Joel spent nearly four times as much as Stern and her Joan Rivers co-director, Annie Sundberg.
Not every filmmaker is seeking to expose a subject's frailties, though. "I made a decision I was not interested in the dirt," said Michael Gordon, the founder of Bumble and bumble, who recently produced and financed a $3 million documentary on Sassoon, the hair salon entrepreneur.
Good thing. "No way they would have had me with two strippers," Sassoon said. "No way." Instead, Gordon said, he was guided by the following question: "Why do hairdressers look like idiots?"
"I was looking to elevate them," he said.
Sassoon, who was raised in an orphanage and redesigned the bob cut in the 1960s, was a willing subject. He is 82 and writing his autobiography. "I love the idea that people would look at me in a different way," he said. "I've never had this much attention in my life."
Joel, by contrast, cringes at the sight of himself onscreen. "At least I didn't hate it," he said of the movie, which opened to generally positive reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival. Now, the producers are negotiating with a distributor for a fall release. "They all want to go to the Oscars," Joel said. Even he knows such an idea is far-fetched. "The older I get, I realize how silly it is what I do. I mean, I look at me on the movie screen, and I just laugh out loud."