One of the hits of the early pandemic was Tiger King, a bingeable, highly tacky Netflix documentary series that followed the exploits of Joe Exotic, the bizarre proprietor of an exotic animal park featuring big cats who eventually went to prison as part of a murder-for-hire scheme involving the attempted killing of animal activist Carole Baskin. You’d assume that a seven-part series would have told the whole story, but apparently not, because now the streamer is releasing Tiger King 2.
Hollywood perpetually pumps out sequels to their biggest blockbusters, but it’s a lot rarer in the world of documentaries. Still, it happens: I’ve put together a guide to some of the most memorable nonfiction franchises, and if you only watched Part One of each series, I’ll let you know what you missed in the follow-up films and whether they’re worth seeking out. This list is far from exhaustive — until researching this piece, I had completely forgotten that there was more than one March of the Penguins and Buena Vista Social Club movies — but hopefully it’ll provide a useful thumbnail sketch of indelible documentaries and the (sometimes) fascinating sequels they spawned.
Seven Up! (1964)
What’s This About?: Running about 40 minutes, Seven Up! had a simple idea: Talk to a bunch of seven-year-olds to get their thoughts about the world.
What Happens in the Sequels?: When Richard Linklater released Boyhood, his rich drama that follows the same young actor over a series of years as his character grows up, some compared the film to what’s generally labeled the Up series. Building off the original Seven Up! short, director Michael Apted came on board to direct a new installment every seven years, returning to the same people to see how their lives had changed since the previous film. Soon, the series became an event, with fans checking out 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up and on and on, with the most recent edition, 63 Up arriving in 2019. We wanted to see how aging and world events had shaped these people — you could argue it was among the first reality series, ordinary people becoming minor celebrities and folks we felt like we knew.
Should I Stick With the Original?: Of all the movies on this list, Seven Up! is the Part One that makes the least sense to stop at. The whole pleasure of the Up movies is the developing human drama that unfolds from sequel to sequel. Sadly, Apted died earlier this year, putting the future of the series in doubt. “It’s a bit surreal,” Jackie Bassett, one of Up’s subjects, said upon his passing. “He knew us so well.”
What’s This About?: Before turning to filmmaking, Godfrey Reggio was an activist, unhappy with the state of the world and its increasing embrace of wealth and technological advancement. “[I realized] the price we pay for the [pursuit] of that technological happiness is the destruction of the world we live in,” he said. “[T]hese were very heavy things for a young person to be thinking about and that led me to an attempt to do something I had never done: make a film.” The avant-garde tone poem Koyaanisqatsi was the result: an immersive, wordless documentary that juxtaposes images of nature and civilization, all scored by master composer Philip Glass. It was a symphonic, visually dazzling film meant to underline just how much humanity was ruining its only home.
What Happens in the Sequels?: Reggio returned to the same message, and a similar visual/musical approach, for 1988’s Powaqqatsi and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi. Not surprisingly, that strategy, while still striking, just didn’t feel as fresh in subsequent films. (Separately, Koyaanisqatsi’s cinematographer, Ron Fricke, went off and directed Baraka and Samsara, which similarly captured the beauty of the natural world.)
Should I Stick With the Original?: Koyaanisqatsi’s sequels have their fans, but the boldness of the first film remains unmatched.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
What’s This About?: In 1993, three boys — Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore — were found murdered in the woods in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenagers were soon accused of the killings, prompting Brother’s Keeper filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to follow their murder trials and investigate a community that was convinced that the defendants, soon to be nicknamed the West Memphis Three, had to be guilty because they loved heavy metal. Paradise Lost compassionately studies the emotional fallout within the victims’ families, but it also makes it fairly clear that the accused teens, who were convicted and sent to prison, weren’t guilty of the crime.
What Happens in the Sequels?: In 2000’s Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, the filmmakers turn their attention to one of the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, who had been sentenced to death, chronicling the attempts to clear his name as well as raising suspicions about the father of one of the slain boys, John Mark Byers, who might have been involved in the killings. Then, 11 years later, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory gave audiences a happy ending: The West Memphis Three were finally freed.
Should I Stick With the Original?: The 1996 film, much like The Thin Blue Line, was a landmark in terms of showing how shoddy police work and a broken judicial system can get innocent people locked up. But the follow-up documentaries are more than afterthoughts, showing the hard work that went into freeing these young men, which took nearly two decades. The whole trilogy is plenty sobering.
Super Size Me (2004)
What’s This About?: Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock had a clever idea: Why not film himself for a month while he eats nothing but McDonald’s, discovering what that fast-food diet does to his physical and mental well-being? Super Size Me was aided by Spurlock’s engaging, self-deprecating manner in front of the camera, but it was genuinely upsetting to see how much his body changed after all those burgers. Think of this film as sort of the platonic ideal of the infotainment documentary, offering an entertaining hook while discussing the dangers of poor diet choices.
What Happens in the Sequels?: More than a decade later, and failing to have a commercial success as significant subsequently, Spurlock released Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!, which abandoned the central conceit to do more of a deep dive into the fast-food industry — and, specifically, how particular sorts of deceptive branding can make consumers think they’re eating more healthily than they actually are. To prove his point, Spurlock opened his own chicken restaurant as part of the film.
Should I Stick With the Original?: Holy Chicken! was gimmicky and uninspired, but Spurlock’s acknowledgement of past sexual misconduct around its release is what really torpedoed the documentary’s commercial prospects. In fact, there’s a decent chance that you’ve never even heard of this sequel. Trust me, you weren’t missing much.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
What’s This About? Determined to get George W. Bush voted out of office, Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore put together a documentary specifically designed to make the case against his presidency. With his usual mixture of jokes, arguments and interviews, Fahrenheit 9/11 recounts the mishandling of 9/11 and the disastrous occupation of Iraq. Surprisingly, it ended up being one of the biggest hits of that summer. “The primary goal was to make a good movie,” Moore said at the time. “The secondary goal: the complete and entire removal of the Bush family and their associates from Washington come November.” He failed on that front: Bush got a second term.
What Happens in the Sequel?: Fahrenheit 11/9 came out in 2018, the title switch corresponding to the date in 2016 when Donald Trump was confirmed as the upset winner of the presidential election. Other than Moore being unhappy with another Republican president — and Moore once again putting himself at the center of the story — the two films don’t have that much in common. But no doubt the success of Fahrenheit 9/11 made him want to connect the follow-up to his biggest hit in audiences’ minds.
Should I Stick With the Original?: The 2004 film is far from perfect, but it’s a fairly accurate encapsulation of the rage and sorrow a lot of us felt after Bush’s contested 2000 election victory, compounded by 9/11 and the War on Terror. By comparison, Fahrenheit 11/9 was a weak, glib response to Trump’s rise, failing to take down any of its targets. Not surprisingly, the film didn’t make a dent at the box office.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)
What’s This About?: Veteran singer-songwriter Neil Young teamed up with director Jonathan Demme, responsible for the greatest concert film ever in Stop Making Sense, to produce this laidback, folk-tinged Nashville performance. Focused on songs from Young’s then most recent album, Prairie Wind, which was a wistful record inspired by a health scare, Heart of Gold is understandably elegiac and reflective, catching the mercurial musician in a thoughtful headspace. And the old hits, like “Heart of Gold,” still sound great.
What Happens in the Sequels?: Without much fanfare, Demme kept making documentaries with Young, following Heart of Gold with Neil Young Trunk Show in 2009, and then Neil Young Journeys two years later. But each movie was different: If the polished Heart of Gold was primarily an acoustic, country-ish concert piece, Trunk Show was raw and hard-rocking, while Journeys spent less time on stage, allowing Young to talk about his life and experiences.
Should I Stick With the Original?: Discussing Young’s artistic importance around the release of Journeys, Demme, who died in 2017, said, “He’s a great artist, a great entertainer, and endlessly desirable to see and hear.” If you agree with that sentiment, you won’t want to stop at just Heart of Gold. What makes the whole trilogy work is that, like Young’s records, the three films offer different sides of the man: There’s the gentle Neil, the guitar-warhorse Neil, the experimental Neil, the funny Neil, the mysterious Neil. And they’re connected by Demme’s deep, abiding affection for an artist who didn’t always let others get so close to him.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
What’s This About?: If things had worked out differently — especially in Florida, say, in November 2000 — Al Gore might have been too busy to be the star of An Inconvenient Truth. Instead the documentary, directed by Davis Guggenheim, filmed the former vice president as he gave one of his power-point presentations about an issue that’s long concerned him, global warming. Part pseudo-concert film, part memoir, the documentary helped burnish Gore’s standing after losing to George W. Bush, going on to win the Oscar.
What Happens in the Sequels?: Premiering at Sundance in January 2017, right around the exact moment Donald Trump took office, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power chronicled Gore’s continuing battles to raise awareness about our imperiled planet. But the documentary’s happy ending turned out to be short-lived: The historic Paris Agreement is signed, although Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement a few months into office.
Should I Stick With the Original?: Although the climate is certainly in even worse shape than it was when Gore starred in the original film, Truth to Power felt like a meager follow-up, illustrating the challenge that environmentalists face in warning people about the ongoing threat. The 2017 film was sobering, but it was also familiar and a bit redundant. The shock of the initial film is all most viewers need — sadly, its message is even more dire today.
The Act of Killing (2012)
What’s This About?: Director Joshua Oppenheimer invited former members of Indonesia’s death squads — the individuals responsible for contributing to a genocide in the 1960s that led to the deaths of at least 500,000 people — to reenact their crimes for the camera. Shockingly, these men, now quite elderly, happily complied, loving the opportunity to be movie stars while they presented themselves as glamorous gangsters and heroes. In between these segments, Oppenheimer spends time with the killers, who have no guilt about what they did and have never been prosecuted. As far as they’re concerned, they’re the good guys, resulting in one of the most disturbing documentaries of this young century.
What Happens in the Sequel?: The filmmaker doesn’t consider 2014’s The Look of Silence to be a sequel. (“I see the two films as completing one another, as forming a single work whose whole is hopefully greater than the sum of the parts,” he once said.) And, indeed, the follow-up film shifts gears, focusing on an optometrist named Adi who confronts the men who killed his older brother as part of the genocide. The Look of Silence is a less conceptually bold documentary than The Act of Killing, but it’s more intimate as Adi has pointed conversations with the responsible parties, trying to find closure after all these years.
Should I Stick With the Original?: The Act of Killing is a remarkable, daring film, but it actually gains in power alongside The Look of Silence. Both need to be seen to understand how a society can do terrible things and then pretend that they never happened. If anything, the atrocities chronicled in these films, because they took place so far away from America, give us the proper perspective to recognize all of this country’s past sins that we try to overlook. That kind of Silence happens everywhere.