Here at Topic, we celebrate the noise-makers, the misfits, and the rule-breakers. Because they dare to push boundaries to see what the future holds. Think of how dull and colorless life on earth would be without the David Bowies or Salvador Dalis redefining genres, challenging our expectations, and absolutely exhilarating us with their strange and beautiful art. These are the people who break new ground for the rest of the world to dance on. We’ve rounded up five documentaries that celebrate the lives and work of some of our favorite boundary-pushers. So let’s watch and get a little weird.
A genius of this caliber only comes “once in a lifetime.” We love him for The Talking Heads, and perhaps for his incredibly experimental solo work, but what you probably didn’t know about David Byrne is that he is absolutely obsessed with color guard. Yes, the synchronized dance routines with twirling flags and batons. The practice is rooted in military pageantry and often used in marching band performances, but in “Contemporary Color,” Byrne turns it into a stunning spectacle of high art. The documentary centers around his 2015 show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center that featured 10 color guard teams from across the U.S. and Canada. It is both an awe-inspiring showcase of the teams’ athleticism, choreography, artistic vision, and full-out flair, as well as a reminder of Byrne’s signature stage energy. The show also seamlessly wove in performances by St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado, Ad-Rock, and Ira Glass. Byrne’s visionary work with color guard proves that he’s the best kind of boundary-pusher — we never know what boundaries he’ll push next!
The man hardly needs any introduction; he’s Maurice Sendak. And “Where the Wild Things Are” is one of the most beloved children’s books in history. Remember when your parents first read it to you and your eyes opened wide at those crazy illustrations? Remember how good it felt to read about another child who was misunderstood? And those monsters! At first you were scared but then you grew to love them like Max did. It feels like just yesterday, doesn’t it? That’s because “Where the Wild Things Are” is the kind of book that transcends time and age. It was unlike anything of its time, and remains to this day a one-of-a-kind treasure for kids and parents to discover for generations to come. And that’s just one of dozens of works from Sendak’s imagination. In “Tell Them Anything You Want,” filmmakers Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs delve into the mind of the man behind the horned monsters. As Sendak talks about his life and work, and the controversy he faced, it’s clear that he was an often crotchety man who was capable of creating unparalleled whimsy on the page — a truly charming dichotomy.
What a title! Bet you’d never guess that it’s also the name of a country song — from the ‘70s. This documentary short unearths the long lost music of Lavender Country, the first openly gay country band who released one album in 1973 and disappeared. Frontman Pat Haggerty released the album with a very specific goal in mind: to make it easier for other gay men to come out. While a few LGBT musicians at the time were paving the way for acceptance and sexual expression — musicians like David Bowie, Elton John, and Freddie Mercury — not a single soul was doing it with country music. Imagine the cojones on Haggerty to come out to a room full of people in a honky tonk bar. With the help of the internet, Lavender Country has been rediscovered 40 years later, finding a whole new fan base in the process. “These C*cksucking Tears” gives Haggerty some long overdue recognition for fighting the white cis patriarchy long before the woke generation. He was a trailblazer and no one even knew, until now.
As Arthur Russell fans, it’s kind of cool to think that someone you’ve long loved is now being discovered by the likes of Kanye West and Frank Ocean. And just like we did when we first heard him, they’re freaking out. That’s because Russell is like no other — people say that about a lot of musicians, but seriously, Arthur Russell is like no other. In fact, we couldn’t imagine how any documentary could capture the essence of this iconoclast, but “Wild Combination” does a damn good job. Channeling Russell’s eclectic style, the film pieces together his life through archival footage, excerpts of musical compositions, and interviews. From his early days as a classical cellist, to his teenage years spent with a Buddhist group in San Francisco, to his circuitous musical career that started with Allen Ginsberg and led to New York City’s disco clubs, “Wild Combination” makes one thing clear: Russell could not be defined. But we already knew that, and we stopped trying a long time ago.
Though he’s widely considered the Banksy of China, Badiucao doesn’t hide his identity for the sake of art; he’s in literal hiding. From the Chinese government. Not gonna lie, that’s way more badass. In “China’s Artful Dissident,” which was released on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, we meet Badiucao (which is a pseudonym) as he prepares for an upcoming exhibition that could rock the entire People’s Republic. We see the artist wheatpasting some of his most politically controversial work: for example, a triptych of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s portraits, each one progressing in age, with the caption “Xi Forever,” a comment on the president’s constitutional flex to keep him in office for life. Badiucao hopes that his art will empower the people of China to start challenging the status quo and protest the government’s rampant human rights abuses, just like Tank Man did 30 years before him. But will he be able to pull off the exhibition or will the dangers be too big to risk?