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Upbeat Documentaries For Those Spending More Time At Home These Days


The word documentary may bring to mind a humorless but important three-hour saga that you know you should watch but you probably won't. NPR's pop culture critic Linda Holmes is here to tell us that is not always the case. Linda has got some ideas for spending our increased at-home entertainment time with a few classic, upbeat nonfiction movies.

Hey, Linda.


KELLY: So as someone who gets paid to watch TV, I got to ask, how are you spending this time? Have you already torn through your whole Netflix list?

HOLMES: (Laughter) Well, I am watching a lot of TV, and, as you say, I do that normally. But I am digging, I think, a little deeper. I'm paying attention to the things that I enjoy the most. And I have watched a couple of documentaries in the last few days - not like the super-depressing and serious kind but the kind that's a little more upbeat.

KELLY: Yeah. Sell me on that because, I will confess, I hear the word documentary, and I think it's going to be really heavy, which is the last thing I'm in the mood for at home right now. You're...

HOLMES: Right.

KELLY: ...Talking about something quite different.

HOLMES: Yeah. There are all kinds of documentaries. A lot of them are character studies of interesting people who do interesting things. There's a movie called "Brooklyn Castle" that came out in 2012. It's about a championship chess team from a school in Brooklyn where the chess kids are like the athletes at other schools. There are a lot of great kids on the team who are fun to get to know. It also gets into some questions about school funding and the importance of activities, and all of that stuff remains really current. And by the way, if you're hearing my dog, he hears a leaf blower outside.

KELLY: Oh, good. Welcome to the dog. He can weigh in whenever he likes.


KELLY: If - I mean, where should I be watching these? Can I rent them? Do I Netflix them? What am I doing here?

HOLMES: You can rent them. They are - that one is at Amazon or iTunes or whatever you rent movies. Along similar lines, there's a movie called "Spellbound," which is about the national spelling bee. That one's available also. But if you don't want to pay for rentals, there is a streaming service called Tubi. That's T-U-B-I.


HOLMES: It has ads, but it's free. And that movie "Spellbound" is sort of a nerd classic. It makes me really happy. And, you know, one thing I've noticed is that because there is such a firehose of things to watch and pay attention to normally, sometimes I don't get that pause to catch up and to seek out things that maybe I missed the first time or things that I just haven't seen in a while. "Spellbound" is very much like that for me and, I think, maybe for some other people, too.

KELLY: If even that feels too stressful - watching people compete - what else is on your list?

HOLMES: Well, how about Vogue magazine? There is a film called "The September Issue," which is about the publication of the biggest issue of the year at Vogue - fascinating if you like fashion or commerce. You can rent that at some places, or you can watch that one on YouTube.

KELLY: And if we are, you know, in this moment of coronavirus, feeling jangled, unnerved, we just want something soothing. What should we watch?

HOLMES: Yeah, so if you have HBO, there's a music documentary that's called "May It Last." It's about the band The Avett Brothers. I think this one is available for rent also if you don't have HBO. It's very - they're very country- and bluegrass-influenced. The film is about family and how people make music. I shared it with my own family. And, in fact, a nice thing about a lot of these films is they are appropriate to sit down with the whole family and enjoy them together because they're very suited for that kind of viewing.

KELLY: Great. All right. I was writing down the list just as we went. Let me see if I got it all. I took note of "Brooklyn Castle," "Spellbound," "The September Issue" and "Make It Last" - recommendations there from our pop culture critic Linda Holmes and her dog.

Thank you, Linda.

HOLMES: Thank you so much.


THE AVETT BROTHERS: (Singing) I keep telling myself... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.