Review by C.J. Bunce
Following up on The Toys That Made Us (previously reviewed here at borg), Netflix’s surprise hit documentary series leaning on viewers’ nostalgia with a look behind select high-profile toy lines of the past, this weekend the streaming provider added a new series based on the same formula. The Movies That Made Us takes a four episode-per-season look at what someone somewhere thinks are important movies in the national consciousness. The series arrives nicely timed, since season three of The Toys That Made Us already is showing signs the studio has run out of ideas.
Like The Toys That Made Us, the new series isn’t really about the subject of the series, instead taking viewers on a deep, dark dive into the business world of pop culture. Like the first series, The Movies That Made Us has some fascinating gold nuggets. It also has its problems. The biggest issue being the odd introductory selection of movies, and the second, the glaring omission of key players viewers want to see interviewed for the stories. As for the first issue, understandably the show is trying to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers. But it seems highly unlikely any single person, whether a movie buff or casual moviegoer, would put the following four movies on their list of must-see films: Dirty Dancing, Home Alone, Ghostbusters, and Die Hard. As for the second problem, part of the issue is the series is too late to the table. So many of the key players behind and in front of the camera in these films have died, like Ghostbusters writer/actor Harold Ramis, Dirty Dancing director Emile Ardolino and co-stars Patrick Swayze and Jerry Orbach, Home Alone writer John Hughes, and Die Hard actors Alan Rickman and Alexander Godunov and writer Roderick Thorp. But people die and that shouldn’t hold up a good story, except that so many players that could have been interviewed who are living also didn’t participate. A documentary about Dirty Dancing without star Jennifer Grey? Die Hard without Bruce Willis? Ghostbusters without Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, or Rick Moranis? And the clincher… they couldn’t get Macauley Culkin, Joe Pesci, or Catherine O’Hara to say anything about Home Alone?
It really gets to the point of audience expectation. Movie buffs will enjoy this series’ first season even if they didn’t care for the films, simply because it’s always going to be interesting for them to watch the wheeling and dealing of the studio machine told from the people who were there. In that regard, the episodes about Dirty Dancing and Home Alone were entertaining by virtue of their tales of odd ideas that managed to emerge like the phoenix from dead deals to become major box office successes through a lot of luck and happenstance (told nicely in the episodes). And the same was true for The Toys That Made Us, although after nine episodes an hour of the retired talking heads of Toyland has lost its luster. To that end, the series should be called something more accurate, like The Making of the Movies That Made Us, etc. But even that would set the expectation that you’d see more than talking heads interspersed with fuzzy snapshots from productions of the past.
Is the series’ first season worth your time? It depends on whether you’ve seen this great year of scripted television shows yet. If not, this series can certainly wait. But it’s a good way to kill four hours, an hour at a time. Highlights of the series include Dan Aykroyd discussing Ghostbusters (he doesn’t share much new, but it’s always nice to see him chat movies), Ray Parker, Jr. coming up with the idea for the song lyrics, and Ivan Reitman discussing the hurdles of getting that film started. The Die Hard segment reminds us how Bruce Willis was only a TV actor when they handed him this big money movie role, and that John Tiernan is quite funny if a little curmudgeonly recounting his key role as director. Home Alone is a great reminder of how pervasive John Hughes was in the 1980s, how we still miss him and the show’s guest star John Candy, how they used the same closed school from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Breakfast Club for the set, and how half the credit for the success of the film goes to John Williams for his holiday score. And Dirty Dancing’s seemingly impossible path from story to script to box office darling is a true Cinderella story, created by a home video company, but ultimately an enormous success for its key drivers and cheerleaders, writer Eleanor Bergstein and producer Linda Gottlieb.
Are these the “movies that made us”? To some, perhaps. Each of these films in some way was successful despite appearing to the studios as initial failures–the audience members truly made the decision of whether they were going to like these films or not, a concept that studio marketing today tries to take away from the consumer. To others, it may be an excuse to confirm how business dealings in the movie industry are really no different than the deal making in every industry. The difference? “Celebrity” makes us all pay greater attention. It also is a good reminder how everyone has a story to tell, and in this case, the best stories may come from the guy or gal in the back of the studio, well out of the limelight.
How will the series fare after season one? Are the creators, The Nacelle Company, going to continue making their selections based on box office take? Does that really determine what movies made us, i.e. influenced generations or provided us with timeless entertainment?
The latest for fans of docu-nostalgia, the first four episodes of The Movies That Made Us are streaming now exclusively on Netflix.