Your Binge-Watching Habits Should Convince You to Watch Long-Ass Documentaries
There are two important things to note about Long Strange Trip, the engrossing new documentary about the Grateful Dead: it's available to stream on Amazon Prime and it's 238 minutes long. That's longer than The Godfather (177 minutes) or The Godfather Part II (200 minutes). I didn't fire up Trip because I'm a huge Deadhead -- my entry-level knowledge of the group basically stops at the one-two-punch of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty -- I turned it on because I wanted to watch a long-ass documentary.
A few years ago, I would've been a rare case. I don't think I'm alone anymore.
Where the idea of watching a multi-hour documentary might once have felt like "work" to some -- or, god forbid, a dutiful act of "cultural vegetable" consumption -- it appears, anecdotally, as though streaming has changed viewer behavior, shifting the window of tolerance for longer, non-fiction films. When I recommend Long Strange Trip to friends and family members, not as a studious, four-hour-long film, but as a six-episode deep dive just waiting to be consumed on a streaming platform, I'm not met with blank stares or eye rolls. Instead, even non-movie-obsessives, who have likely never seen a documentary in a movie theatre, are intrigued. To them, it doesn't sound like homework. It sounds like a fun binge-watch!
Binge-watching, the gross phrase currently used to describe the simple act of watching something on your TV, isn't just for prestige television dramas and witty sitcoms anymore. It's for documentaries, too. Specifically, super-long ones.
What was the most talked about non-fiction film of last year? Ezra Edelman's Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America (467 minutes), which explored the cultural footprint of the former football star and the legacy of his controversial trial. How did 2015 end? With millions of true-crime devotees devouring all 10 episodes of Netflix's Making a Murderer (607 minutes), a series that ditched the one-case-per-episode of traditional non-fiction doc shows for a more feature-like approach. This year, the service's well-reviewed The Keepers (432 minutes) premiered to an audience that's been primed to prefer #longform shows.
Like O.J.: Made in America, Long Strange Trip was given a limited release on the big screen in large cities, but I assume most viewers caught it in more pee-break friendly chunks on a streaming service, where many similarly epic music docs have also prospered. On Netflix, you can currently catch Runnin' Down a Dream (238 minutes), which chronicles Tom Petty's career over a leisurely runtime, or History of the Eagles (187 minutes), which multiple hours devotes to Glenn Frey and Don Henley's rock star antics. Countless stories about snorting cocaine are only a click away.
There's a long, rich tradition of rock doc girth and some of it can be attributed to one our greatest living filmmakers. Martin Scorsese, who executive produced Long Strange Trip, served as an editor and assistant director on Woodstock (185 minute original version; 225 minute director's cut) from 1970, and later in his career he directed the Bob Dylan biography No Direction Home (208 minutes) and George Harrison: Living in the Material World (208 minutes). The cliches of the rock doc -- the talking head interviews, the anecdotes from burned-out roadies, the clever editing of live footage -- make for ideal comfort viewing.
The long documentary isn't only for music, and it's hardly a new trend of the streaming era: think of the basketball portrait Hoop Dreams (170 minutes) or Shoah (566 minutes), the acclaimed study of the Holocaust. Also, let's not forget the role public broadcasting has had in bringing documentaries to viewers. In the 1990s and beyond, PBS became the de-facto home to the sprawling, sepia-toned movies of Ken Burns, the filmmaker behind lengthy historical works like The Civil War (680 minutes), Baseball (1,380 minutes), Jazz (1,095 minutes), and The War, (900 minutes) which, coincidentally, is now available to stream on Netflix. On the BBC, there's dizzying films of archival footage wizard Adam Curtis, who has also seen a rise in mainstream press coverage just as many of his films have discovered a new audience through the legally murky backwaters of YouTube. I watched his latest movie, HyperNormalisation (166 minutes), in one brain-scrambling sitting.
Now, I'm not suggesting that everyone who sped through all 10 episodes of Making a Murderer will immediately order a DVD of Jean Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma (266 minutes) or attend a Frederick Wiseman rétrospective. (But, really, they should: Wiseman movies like the 244 minute At Berkeley might blow them away.) Nor am I saying that the recent glut of streaming-exclusive documentaries are on the same level of quality as the classics of the genre. Though Slate may have argued a few years back that we're living in a "Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking," there's certainly an argument to be made that the rush for streaming content has had a negative effect on the actual aesthetics of nonfiction cinema. If you're watching a movie on your phone, like a podcast with pictures, then the director is less incentivized to impress you with bold visual choices.
But, even as we drown in viewing options, the appeal of the long-ass documentary is real. The feeling of total immersion that arrives after the first hour of Long Strange Trip is hypnotic, like you've been given a secret decoder ring that let's you understand a subject that moments before felt incomprehensible. It's not that dissimilar from reading a long book: the text teaches you to read it as you go. The internal logic and narrative rhythms work their way into your brain's synapses via prolonged exposure. It's a narcotic.
Like the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh says in the documentary when talking about the band's notoriously long jam sessions, all you've gotta do is "open the valve." Or fire up that Roku.