Best documentaries on Netflix UK: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best Netflix documentaries.
A documentary can be many things: educational, thought-provoking, enlightening on the human condition, even scary. But, above all those things, if it's not entertaining, it's not worth investing your time in.
Here, then, we bring you a selection of the What Hi-Fi? team's favourites from Netflix, so you won't be wasting your time in sorting through some of the lesser efforts out there.
There are fascinating films on nature, history, sport, politics and, of course, tigers in this list. Something, indeed, for everyone.
We've updated this list for 2022, adding The Tinder Swindler, Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, and more, while also removing some of the documentaries that have vanished from Netflix (in the UK at least).
The Defiant Ones
The Defiant Ones is a four-part series that charts the partnership between Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine and rapper and record producer Dr. Dre. As much as being a music documentary, it's a story of entrepreneurship and how an artform helped build an empire for two pioneering individuals.
Not only are there hours of fascinating interviews with all the main players in the story but plenty of archive film footage of two masters at work. It's clear that both know a great track when they hear one and also how to get ahead in the cutthroat world of the music business (and later in consumer tech). But of course, as is so often the case, it also shows two people who are utterly driven to be successful.
Thankfully, Dre and Iovine prove articulate and interesting interviewees, modest and self-aware (even as multi-millionaires sat in their luxurious homes) and with enough crazy tales from life and business that could have filled many documentaries. Sit back, relax, be impressed, entertained and inspired.
The Tinder Swindler
Watch this true story, as told in just two hours by the victims of a carefully conceived dating app scam, and whatever happens this weekend you can sleep soundly in the knowledge that unwittingly buying the designer clothes, sports cars, Michelin-star meals, magnums of Cristal and first class flights your partner needs to snag their next squeeze isn’t on the agenda.
Assuming it’s a basic ‘why me?’ sob story from the mouths of three naive women who fell for the wrong guy would be a huge error: ‘diamond dealer’ Simon Leviev (of course that’s not his real name) has a story so water-tight, expertly-honed and aided by a dedicated cast of cohorts that even the most experienced and cynical of Tinder users falls foul of his advances.
Picture the scene: you’re sitting on a private jet, talking to Simon’s amenable ex about what a supportive dad he is to the two-year-old on her knee. His bodyguard takes a picture of the two of you and says how nice it is that he’s finally met someone perfect for him. Later, he buys you a lovely meal, right after his important meeting. On a balcony in Barcelona, you Google him. You tell your friends to Google him! All confirm he’s legit, there he is with his parents – although naturally his father demands the family keep a low profile on social media, billionaire diamond dealers would.
He sends you home on a first class flight. It was all real. It’s just that somewhere, in another city, another woman is suffering... and soon it'll be you. If you’ve ever watched The Serpent, the parallels are striking.
Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy
Epic multi-part music documentaries being all the rage, Netflix’s new four and a half-hour film Jeen-yuhs is a timely, fascinating, if troubling study of Kanye West that looks set to prove essential viewing, regardless of your opinion on his more recent, headline-grabbing behaviour.
Released in three parts over the coming weeks, the first episode of Jeen-yuhs introduces us to West as an ambitious 21-year-old producer, prized (and occasionally taken advantage of) by other artists for his beats, but desperate to rap himself. While it now seems surreal to see West accosting PAs at the Roc-a-Fella Records offices, begging them to listen to future classics like All Falls Down, it’s easy to see why his endearing but frantic attempts to secure a record deal weren’t immediately successful. He doesn’t sound like his contemporaries and, presciently large ego aside, he doesn't act like them either, constantly whipping in and out of his retainers to the disgust of the artists he’s trying to impress.
Directed by West’s longtime friend, Clarence ‘Coodie’ Simmons, who has been filming him since 2004, and Chike Ozah, Jeen-yuhs may not be wholly objective but it presents West as an artist with an empathetic frankness, and offers us a voyeuristic glimpse into his creative process and the early 2000’s hip-hop scene. The directors' close relationship to their subject also produces some of the film’s most poignant moments, such as when West’s unreservedly devoted mother Donda, who died in 2007, reveals the tenacious bond between mother and son. It’s impossible to watch without feeling moved. Hated, adored, but never ignored, this Kanye West documentary is fascinating viewing.
Here's an old one but, we think, perhaps with Making a Murderer, the best documentary on Netflix, and one of the first true crime documentaries that kick-started the genre.
Originally broadcast way back in 2005 and based on true events occurring in Durham, North Carolina in 2001, The Staircase was the brainchild of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Thanks to his work documenting the events of the trial and its aftermath, a new genre in TV – one that became known as true crime series – was born.
The death of wealthy business executive Kathleen Peterson, at the bottom of the staircase in the family mansion, is the start of the series. How she came to die at the bottom of the staircase is what everyone's trying to find out, but her writer husband is quickly believed to have been involved – an accusation he rigorously denies. It is hard to write much about The Staircase without including spoilers, so we'll stop there. Suffice to say it will keep you guessing right until the very end. Did he? Didn't he? And therein lies the question driving a thousand copycat true crime docs. But remember, The Staircase came first.
Three Identical Strangers
"I wouldn't believe the story if someone else were telling it, but it's true. Every word of it." So begins this jaw-dropping story of identical triplets who only become aware of each other's existence in their late teens. And that's just the beginning.
Along the way we learn some of the hows and whys, and follow the brothers' on their journey, through fame, fortune and happiness, but also to the uncomfortable truth of their childhood and just how this staggering story began.
The remarkable and really rather scary story of the Russian doping scandal. Filmmaker Bryan Fogel found that he had stumbled upon a far bigger story when he started to research a documentary into doping (and evading the anti-doping testers) in amateur cycling.
His investigations led him to Russian Grigory Rodchenkov, whom Fogel befriended over time, and who, it eventually emerged, was in charge of an enormous state-backed anti-anti-doping program for Russian athletes from a number of sports.
Rodchenkov, fearing for his life, is now on a witness protection program in the United States – and Fogel got the inside knowledge into one of the biggest scandals in sports of all time. On the back of this information, of course, Russia has been banned from the Olympic Games, World Athletics and more – and is still to be allowed back into the fold.
You can’t beat a David Attenborough nature doc – and Netflix has a number of them. Obviously, they’re all superb, but we’ve plumped here for Our Planet, which was the first series Attenborough made for Netflix.
There are eight stunning episodes, each concentrating on a different environment – from the opening One Planet to the closing Forests – and each providing a treat for the senses and some welcome escapism. Shot and available in 4K, this series takes advantage of all the very latest in wildlife photography techniques to get images that would have been unimaginable just a decade or so ago.
Sunderland 'Til I Die
Two seasons of behind-the-scenes football-club underdog failing to turn good docudrama? Don’t mind if we do. (Especially as one of the What Hi-Fi? fold is a die-hard Newcastle United fan...)
A compelling insight into the pitfalls of the football business if you happen not to be one of the top six or seven clubs, this series follows a Sunderland team, newly relegated from the top division, in what was intended to be a triumphant return to the Premier League.
Who could have guessed that, in fact, our hapless heroes would end up going the other way, and into third-tier ignominy? Well, pretty much no one – which only adds to the drama.
It’s a very human story of course, with back-room staff, fans and players all affected hugely, and the viewer feels for them.
The 13th amendment to the United States’ Constitution abolished slavery – but left a loophole as far as involuntary servitude goes, by allowing it for those incarcerated for crime. And so, for those unfortunates sent to prison for many years for astonishingly minor misdemeanours, slavery remained a very real way of life.
This documentary, by Ava DuVernay, examines the link between a prison system that was used to take advantage of the loophole immediately after the amendment was passed, and big business and race inequality in the States.
It’s a sobering look back at a century and a half of chain gangs, segregation, the mythology of black criminality and the war on drugs. Hugely impressive interviewees make a compelling argument, in an important film that ought to be seen.
We couldn’t leave out Joe Exotic, now, could we?
“You know, the monkey people are all a little bit different; you know they’re kind of strange. But the big cat people are back-stabbing… pieces of shit.”
And so begins the phenomenon that is Tiger King – a documentary about feuding rival big cat breeders, murder for hire, and more. You really couldn’t make it up.
It sounds ridiculous, and it’s certainly completely mad, but you’ll get sucked into it just like the rest of the world if you haven’t taken the leap into Joe Exotic’s world yet. You have been warned.
Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer
A documentary for the YouTube age, this one isn’t for the fainthearted, but is revealing and fascinating nevertheless. The title refers to a seemingly anonymous YouTuber who puts up appalling footage of torturing and killing cats.
These clips are soon gaining many views, and a Facebook group of shocked viewers is formed to track the perpetrator down, to bring him to justice – and to stop him possibly committing even more shocking and vile crimes.
The group goes to the authorities with their findings, but are regarded by the police as cranks and misfits; until it finally becomes clear that they were right to be concerned.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
A fascinating story of an extraordinary talent.
The story of one of music’s truly troubled souls, What Happened, Miss Simone? is a fairly by the books documentary – but you can’t really go too wrong with a character like Nina Simone, as her brilliance and music shine through everything.
A life filled with difficulties is traced with a vast amount of wonderful archive material and contemporary interviews; it’s the story of a fascinating life that frustrated the young Eunice Waymon from the start.
She yearned to be a ‘serious’ classical musician, but as a black girl in segregated North Carolina suffered instead from racism and discrimination at every turn. She would become, as Nina Simone, a major participant in the civil rights movement – which again set her all too often on a different path from financial opportunity, much to the annoyance of her husband and manager.
It was a great idea: the world’s best, most fun, most ambitious, most exclusive festival. On a beautiful island. In the Caribbean. With and for the world’s most beautiful, desirable people. And the best DJs. And top chefs providing the food.
The problem with great ideas, of course, is that you also need great organisational, management and logistical skills to make the great idea a reality.
Fyre is the story of a great idea gone horribly wrong. A disaster of epic proportions is made all the more enjoyable to watch of course, because the festival-goer ‘victims’ are for the most part extremely privileged, entitled people – Instagrammers and 'influencers' who help to promote an event that becomes an unmitigated shambles – the organiser is ordered by the court to pay back more than $25million.
As always with these things, though, the real victims of the whole sorry affair are the locals who have to help out where possible, clean up the mess and, inevitably, also end up out of pocket for something not of their doing, and entirely out of their control.
Fyre is a salutary lesson for these social-media obsessed times – and very entertaining at the same time.
How To Fix A Drug Scandal
In the space of six months, two (unknown to one other) chemists employed to test illegal narcotics in Massachusetts court cases, were arrested – one for faking tests, the other for drug theft and evidence tampering.
These two cases set in motion a chain of events in the New England state that would bring into question the verdicts of more than 20,000 convictions from the previous years.
This four-parter looks at the two cases in detail, but also then takes things further by investigating a system of injustices in the ‘war against drugs’ that exposes some extremely uncomfortable truths for the Massachusetts state attorney general’s office. A rather scary look at a system that seems rotten almost to the core.
Making A Murderer
One of the biggest Netflix success stories when it comes to true crime documentaries, Making A Murderer sees a family pitted against a police force.
The story begins in 2003 with Steven Avery being exonerated and freed from prison, having served 18 years in prison for sexual assault. Upon his release, he files a $36 million civil lawsuit against the local Manitowoc County police force and several county officials associated with his arrest and conviction.
Two years later, in 2005, Avery was arrested and charged with the murder of Teresa Halbach – despite having an alibi, protesting his innocence and claiming he'd been set-up.
Two seasons, filmed over 13 years, detail every morsel of evidence and the endless legal manoeuvring, as everyone involved – and of course ourselves, as armchair detectives – tries to figure out who to believe and what really happened. Gripping.