Watching documentaries is an excellent way to stay informed about what’s really happening in the world: from unsolved murders to political corruption to quietly escalating global crises. But nonfiction films don’t have to be total bummers. For those Netflix subscribers who love docs — but who just can’t imagine sitting through something heavy right now — here’s a list of enlightening, entertaining and even uplifting documentaries, to brighten up your darker days.
‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’
The actress Hedy Lamarr lived such a remarkable life that just about any 10-year stretch of it could make for its own riveting documentary. From her early days in Europe making scandalous art films, to her reinvention in Hollywood as a glamorous and exotic leading lady — and later as an independent movie producer — Lamarr took more chances with her career than the average 20th-century screen queen. “Bombshell” covers all of that, and touches on her tumultuous personal life as well. But its main subject is Lamarr’s side hobby as an amateur inventor who helped pioneer some of the principles that later led to our current wireless technology.
‘GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’
If you’ve binged your way through the Netflix comedy “GLOW” and are craving more spandex, hair spray and body slams, why not watch the documentary that inspired the show’s creators? Featuring plenty of real footage from televised matches, this film by Brett Whitcomb profiles lady wrestlers, with stage names like Jailbait and Babe the Farmer’s Daughter, who would often hurt themselves executing moves they weren’t experienced enough to choreograph. Just like the fictional “GLOW,” this is the story of a ragtag group of actresses and athletes who transformed sexist characters into a source of empowerment.
‘Paris Is Burning’
Director Jennie Livingston spent years documenting the 1980s New York drag ball subculture, in which gay and transgender people of color would divide into clans, or houses, and perform in elaborate fashion and dancing competitions. Livingston’s subjects speak frankly about struggling to make ends meet in an expensive, exclusionary city; and yet “Paris Is Burning” is still a funny and joyous movie, focusing on the ways people living on the margins often draw strength from each other. The TV series “Pose” has turned this scene into lively drama. Fans of that show should take a look back at where its story began.
‘20 Feet from Stardom’
This Academy Award-winning paean to backup singers is filled with great music and great anecdotes. While taking a closer listen to the wailing voices on some classic rock songs — by the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elton John and others — the director Morgan Neville and the producer Gil Friesen combine nostalgic reminiscences with slice-of-life scenes. The filmmakers don’t shy away from the tough questions about whether the recording industry has exploited the labor of some women who should’ve been stars. But overall, this is a stirring salute: a chorus of praise for the unsung.
‘Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage’
Fans of the Canadian prog-rock trio Rush should get a lot out of this career-spanning doc from 2010, in which the band members Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and the late Neil Peart tell their own story, with the help of some of their most famous fans and colleagues. But “Beyond the Lighted Stage” may also win over some non-fans with its warm portrait of three smart, hard-working, mutually supportive musicians, who kept exploring new directions with their sound — and kept filling arenas — even as the critics were savaging them.
‘Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru’
This portrait of the self-help celebrity Tony Robbins documents one of his six-day, $5,000-a-head Date With Destiny seminars, which are designed to facilitate life-changing epiphanies. Joe Berlinger (“Brother’s Keeper,” the “Paradise Lost” trilogy) brings his trademark vérité style to the project. If you’re curious about these types of seminars (but not at all interested in spending the money), the film accurately depicts what they’re like. Berlinger, though, is himself a satisfied Date With Destiny alum, and parts of the movie feel somewhat rah-rah Robbins.
‘The Dawn Wall’
No, Netflix doesn’t currently carry “Free Solo,” the popular Oscar-winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s 2017 effort to scale Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan, without any protective ropes or harnesses. But “The Dawn Wall” is just as harrowing and inspirational, telling the story of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson and their long, grueling summit of another section of that same mountain. Even knowing there’ll be a happy ending, it’s still nerve-racking to see these athletes attempt a feat so difficult, so far above solid ground.
‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’
At the intersection of food and art sits Jiro Ono, the octogenarian chef whose perfectionism has earned his Tokyo subway-station sushi restaurant three Michelin stars. David Gelb, the director who went on to helm Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” renders Jiro’s creations with style. The film offers more than just mouthwatering visuals, though — it’s also a profile in obsession that becomes a metaphor for creative work of all kinds.
‘The Black Godfather’
For over 50 years, the entertainment manager and promoter Clarence Avant has been a quiet but influential presence in American music, movies, sports and politics, working behind the scenes to connect the right people with each other. In his documentary “The Black Godfather,” the director Reginald Hudlin turns a spotlight onto Avant, who has helped boost the careers of everyone from Hank Aaron to Quincy Jones to Barack Obama. This is a portrait of a man who has made his many friends a lot of money, but has also urged them — always — to keep their higher ideals in mind.
‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution’
Like a documentary version of a teen comedy, “Crip Camp” tells the story of a group of kids who spent a few fun summers together, forging lifelong friendships. The youngsters were dealing with various physical disabilities, and their experience of being accepted and accommodated at an upstate New York camp led them as adults to start pushing for a world where people in wheelchairs or on crutches would have better access to public facilities. The film’s co-director Jim Lebrecht was one of those campers, and he brings a personal touch to this little-known piece of civil rights history.
‘Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made’
In a Steven Spielberg-inspired story so sweet, the “E.T.” director himself could have devised it, two Mississippi boys fall in love with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and spend seven years filming a shot-for-shot remake of it. A few decades later, Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon are in their 40s and resolve to finish the one scene they never completed. The warmhearted account of their reunion celebrates movies and friendship with equal enthusiasm.
‘Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened’
The acclaimed Broadway team of the composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and his friend and producer Hal Prince had a phenomenal run in the 1970s, but suffered a catastrophic flop with the experimental 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” which told a sad story — in reverse chronological order — about three showbiz pals growing apart. Though the experience was emotionally devastating, the documentary about it is genuinely cheering. The musical has since become a widely acknowledged classic, and many of the aspiring stars who worked on the original production remember that time fondly, as a wonderful dream they all woke up from prematurely.
‘Bathtubs Over Broadway’
For much of his adult life, the comedy writer Steve Young has had an unusual hobby: collecting memorabilia related to musical theater productions commissioned by corporate sponsors, to be performed for a select audience of owner-operators and salespeople. “Bathtubs Over Broadway” is about the strange history of these bespoke shows, seen by few and forgotten by most. But it’s also about Young, whose interest in these “industrials” started out as smirky and ironic, but then became a passionate personal mission, to prove that even those who toiled at the margins of the entertainment business had created something of lasting value.