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Every Star Wants a Documentary Now. But Is It Just PR?

When the director Fisher Stevens was shooting “Beckham,” the four-part docuseries about the British footballer David Beckham, he walked into his subject’s kitchen and saw Beckham cleaning up. Stevens immediately grabbed his camera, thinking that this was a revealing moment — the famous multimillionaire scrupulously washing his own dishes. But as soon as he saw the camera, Beckham stopped.

“Beckham” is produced by, among others, Studio 99, the company Beckham co-founded with David Gardner and Nicola Howson, so technically Beckham didn’t have to let Fisher shoot anything he wasn’t comfortable with. But Fisher persisted. “I was like, ‘David, please, this is who you are, this is what you do,’” Fisher said in a recent interview. “It was a lot of negotiation. Nothing was like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ It takes time.”

Fisher said he had been trying to persuade him for more than a year. Eventually, Beckham relented, and the tidying up is included in the Netflix production.

Documentarians have an inherently fraught relationship with their subjects, because what makes a compelling biographical film — a candid, penetrating portrait of a human being in all his complexity — nearly always runs counter to the subject’s best interests. But in the wake of “The Last Dance” (2020), the hit 10-part Netflix docuseries about Michael Jordan that Jordan’s company Jump 23 co-produced with Netflix, other athletes, musicians and movie stars have expressed a desire to see their own legacy depicted onscreen. It raises an obvious dilemma: If a celebrity has commissioned and even produced a documentary about themselves, can it ever hope to be balanced and objective?

“This is the thing. I know people go, ‘Oh, his company was involved,’” Stevens said. “But they honestly wanted to tell the best, most honest story. They didn’t want to do a branded Beckham piece.” Stevens said that while he was initially skeptical of making the film under the aegis of Beckham’s company, having no interest in “puffy bio-pieces,” he agreed on the condition that he retain final cut and that Beckham would be willing to “get into some uncomfortable territory.”

“The key was to stay true to my vision and not kowtow to their vision,” Stevens said. “The shocking thing, and the beautiful thing, was that they were really trusting.”

Rebecca Mead, writing in The New Yorker, suggested that Beckham’s role behind the scenes might have been the reason the film “skirts some of the more questionable endeavors undertaken by the player,” such as being an ambassador for Qatar, the host country of the 2022 World Cup that was heavily criticized for human-rights abuses. Ultimately she concluded that this partiality is “part of its strength” for what it reveals about how the subject sees himself.

The documentary “Sly” doesn’t spend much time on the star’s failures.Credit…Netflix

Thom Zimny, the director of the new Sylvester Stallone documentary “Sly” (also on Netflix), told me that skepticism of these kinds of films comes from a basic misconception. “When you have a subject, and he’s also part of the producing team, I think that sets up a certain level of projection on the project, that there’s a level of control going on,” he said. “In my experience with ‘Sly,’ there was never a moment when I felt his hand as director, where he said, ‘The point of view you need to take is this’ or ‘You can’t talk about these subjects.’”

“Sly” has been criticized for being too generous to its star. Reviewing the film for The Guardian, Charles Bramesco wrote that “puff pieces don’t get much puffier than this,” and lambasted Zimny for his “hindering obsequiousness.” While Stallone is open about his past and his feelings, the film doesn’t spend an especially long time on his cinematic failures. Critically maligned vehicles like “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” are glossed over, and few of the talking heads have anything really negative to say.

Zimny insisted that he was not obliged to defer to Stallone. “There was never notes from him,” he said. “If anything, he’d watch the film and come back and express that he was really happy with it. You’re working with someone to give you space to make a film better.” In the documentary, Stallone is shown as a frequent tinkerer who constantly altered scripts, changed endings and improvised dialogue during shoots. Zimny said that desire for control wasn’t evident here. “I completely acknowledge that the story of ‘Sly’ contradicts the experience that I had as a documentary filmmaker,” he said.

Pete Nicks, the director of the recent Apple TV+ film “Stephen Curry: Underrated,” about the Golden State Warriors point guard, said that “celebrity is a veneer,” and explained, “For documentarians, our craft is about pushing past that veneer.” Celebrity subjects, he said, inevitably have handlers, managers and representatives, and it can be a challenge for filmmakers “to work within that and still find authenticity.”

Curry’s production company, Unanimous, was among the film’s backers, though as Nicks was quick to clarify, Curry himself was not a credited producer. Nicks said that he had some creative disagreements with the company about the direction of the movie. For instance, Curry’s people wanted to include interviews with Barack Obama and Drake, but Nicks wanted to include only people who fit organically.

Still, it’s hard to deny that the film presents an overwhelmingly positive depiction of its subject. “Underrated” is continually reminding us that Curry beat the odds, overcame doubts, achieved greatness despite reservations. Even the title seems self-mythologizing. “The notion that Curry remains an underdog is humorous to contemplate when you consider that his production company is called Unanimous, so named for the fact that Curry is the only player in the history of the N.B.A. to have received a unanimous vote for the M.V.P. Award,” Jennifer Wilson wrote in The New Republic.

A scene from “Stephen Curry: Underrated.” The director, Peter Nicks, said he had some disagreements with his subject’s representatives about whom to include in the film.Credit…Steve Dykes/Apple TV+, via Associated Press

Nicks said that it was his idea to portray Curry as underestimated — that the athlete “didn’t sit with me and say that this is what the movie should be about.” The director added, “I questioned it for a moment in terms of, do we really call it ‘Underrated’? But the more I got to know him and the more I understood his story, the more it made sense.”

One of the few recent star documentaries that isn’t produced by its subject is Netflix’s three-part “Arnold,” about the bodybuilder, actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Every documentarian feels differently, and I wouldn’t put my judgment on anyone else, but I think in order for these celeb-focused documentaries to really have layers and feel like an immersive experience, you have to have that objectivity,” the director Lesley Chilcott said. “You want the ability to say, as I said to Arnold, that no subject can be off the table, and that includes all the things you read about in the press, and we’re not going to pull any punches.”

“Arnold” confronts Schwarzenegger with many of his mistakes and controversies, including the affair he had with his housekeeper in 1996 and accusations of sexual misconduct that arose years ago. It’s not stuff that a hagiography would be willing to deal with — it raises tough questions that complicate his legacy. Chilcott said that having the freedom to broach these issues was part of the deal when they agreed to make the film. So was Schwarzenegger not having creative control.

“Did he want to talk about those issues? No, he didn’t. Did he want to keep putting it off once he agreed to it? Yes,” she said. “But Arnold is smart enough to realize that he had to talk about it. He knew that he had to go there, and he had the wisdom to know that this can’t just be black and white and just be about his successes.”

Fred Topel of United Press International wrote that Schwarzenegger’s willingness to address his faults and take some accountability for his actions, “allows the series to be more than a hagiography.”

Chilcott said she told Schwarzenegger, “We’re going to have to talk about your failures,” she said. “When you’ve have that kind of success, your failures are a key part of your success.”

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