Framing Britney Spears, the powerful new documentary about the life of the singer and the gruelling experience she faced under the glare of the tabloids, has prompted a global conversation about the price of fame, and a focus on celebrity documentaries. From similarly heart-wrenching accounts of stars such as Amy Winehouse pushed to the brink by media scrutiny, to fascinating biographical accounts of legends such as Nina Simone and Pelé, to upcoming new releases about the Notorious B.I.G., Billie Eilish and Caroline Flack there are plenty of incredible films exploring the lives and trials of the world’s biggest names. Here, discover our edit of the most gripping and moving celebrity documentaries.
The New York Times-led investigative documentary about the pop icon has set the internet ablaze, and for good reason. Prompted by recent viral campaigns to #FreeBritney, a movement fighting for the singer to be freed from the conservatorship of her father, Jamie Spears, the documentary pieces together the timeline of the ongoing legal battle and examines her shocking experiences as a teen star in the process.
Charting her battles with childhood fame, terrifyingly intense media scrutiny and music industry misogyny, Framing Britney Spears exposes the horrors that the singer faced as a young female star, and raises alarming questions about the case against her father. The film has received widespread acclaim and prompted a self-examination about our hunger for celebrity gossip, as well as apologies to Spears from other stars, most notably her ex-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake.
Available on Sky Documentaries and Now TV
The Gen-Z pop star became a viral sensation thanks to her distinctive vocal stylings and dark, mysterious music that have also won her numerous accolades and made her the youngest artist ever to win the four main Grammy categories. Now, this highly anticipated documentary from acclaimed director R.J. Cutler, the man behind The September Issue, is offering an intimate look at the rise of the teen star.
This “coming-of-age” story is unlike any other, tracing the 19-year-old’s rise and the creation of her sound and her award-winning album with her brother Finneas. Family is central to her life, helping her navigate fame and life on the road, as well as her struggle with depression. It’s a beautifully portrayed, frank look at the life of a singular talent at the beginning of her career.
Available on Apple TV+ on February 26
Much like the Britney Spears documentary, this heart-breaking film about Amy Winehouse was created without the artist’s input. Made posthumously by director Asif Kapadia, the documentary uses exclusive home videos, voicemails, archival footage and interviews with those closest to her to track the singer’s early rise and incredible talent, through to her drug and substance addiction that eventually led to her death at 27.
While Amy’s brilliance lies in its lack of judgment of its protagonist, instead showing the complex forces in her life, it also highlights the horror she faced at the hands of relentless paparazzi, an experience that was also noted in Framing Britney Spears. Deeply moving, the account is as much a reminder of Amy Winehouse’s incredible talent as a record of the perils of fame.
Available to rent on YouTube
The UK was shocked when one of its most famous and beloved television presenters Caroline Flack took her own life at the age of 40 in February 2020, and, much like the Britney Spears documentary did for the US, shone on a light on the terrible effect media and social media scrutiny can have on people’s mental health.
Featuring interviews with Caroline’s family and friends, including Olly Murs and Dermot O’Leary, the Channel 4 documentary will explore the pressure that fame, social media and the gossip-hungry press inflicted on Caroline, especially during her prosecution for allegedly assaulting her boyfriend, Lewis Burton. Painful and compassionate, the documentary hopes to be a warning for the depression that bullying can cause.
Available on Channel 4 soon
This fascinating documentary offers an unprecedented look at the life of footballer Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known by his alter ego name, Pelé. Examining the star’s rise from a childhood in the slums of Sao Paulo to a champion for the Brazilian football team, the documentary explores his accomplishments on the pitch and for his country.
Directed by David Tryhorn, the film is mostly interested in Pelé’s rise to a national hero status after 1958, when he became an increasingly outspoken political figure during a radical and turbulent era in Brazilian history. With archival footage and exclusive filmed interviews with Pelé himself, this documentary is a fitting tribute to a pioneering star.
Available on Netflix
Following his posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, the life of rap legend the Notorious B.I.G. gets a fresh look in this documentary executive produced by his mother Violetta Wallace and Sean “Diddy” Combs. Using behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with some of his closest friends, the film explores the artist’s early life and rapid rise in the 1990s.
Charting the songs that made him famous and the impact of his work on the world of music and his community, this intimate look at the star’s life pulls back the curtain for the first time on the life of the boy Christopher, before he became the legend known as Biggie.
Available on Netflix on March 1
While this 2017 documentary is focused on tracking the making of Lady Gaga’s country-inspired album Joanne and her Super Bowl performance, it also offers an intriguing look into a pop star fighting for control of her own image. The film is a fast-paced romp through Gaga’s year, following her friendships with her entourage, her collaborating with the likes of Mark Ronson and Florence Welch and her investigation of her family history that ultimately inspires Joanne.
Incredibly personal, Gaga: Five Foot Two also delves into the artist’s struggles, including managing an intense workload, conflict with her then-boyfriend and her chronic pain caused by the onset of fibromyalgia. A fascinating insight into one of pop’s most creative minds, the behind-the-scenes look into the making of an album will likely have you playing Joanne on repeat once the final credits roll.
Available on Netflix
Acclaimed New York director Liz Garbus turns her lens to the life of famed blues and jazz singer Nina Simone in this moving portrait of the life of the artist and activist. While her voice and songs may be well known, for many the twists and turns of her life will be a surprise, from her creating a soundtrack to the civil rights movement to living in self-imposed exile in Liberia.
Tracing the life of the singer from her childhood in North Carolina, to her performing at Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, to her disenchantment with the activism movements, Garbus’ documentary is rife with Simone’s anger, passion and determination, told through archival footage and interviews with friends and family.
Available on Netflix
A compilation of rare footage and exclusive live recordings, Nick Broomfield’s 2017 documentary about the legendary singer Whitney Houston explores her complex relationship with fame and her family. Featuring footage from her final major tour in the 1990s, we see a star clearly exhausted, although it never shows in her performances, and the film sensitively and compassionately explores the self-doubt, family tension and drug addiction that led to her tragic death in 2012, at the age of 48.
While the film doesn’t include as many intimate insights as Amy, the documentary is nonetheless engrossing in its exploration of Whitney’s struggle to claim her own identity. A common theme of the film is Whitney’s insecurities — the film suggests that the star was unable to believe that she deserved the incredible levels of fame she achieved, and that it had to be paid for with private unhappiness. Heart-breaking and incredibly moving, it’s a must for any Whitney fan.
Available on BBC iPlayer
Socialite, DJ and entrepreneur Paris Hilton stunned viewers with this surprising documentary. Based on the reputation cemented by her early-2000s escapades with Nicole Richie on The Simple Life, many assumed it would be a highly varnished look into her much-mocked DJ career. Instead, director Alexandra Dean convinces Hilton to let down a little of her perfected media persona and offer a candid insight into how she’s navigated fame and the taunts of the press.
Most shocking, however, is the revelation of the abuse she experienced as a child, when she was sent to a draconian reform school in Utah that she claims physically and psychologically traumatised her. In the film, she reveals how that trauma can be felt to this day in her relationships and ability to trust, drawing interesting links between the childhood experience and her celebrity life.
Available on YouTube
This intimate look at the accomplishments of legendary record producer and artist Quincy Jones was co-written and co-directed by Alan Hicks and Rashida Jones, his daughter. Thanks to the latter’s role, Quincy is charmingly warm and affectionate, offering a comprehensive look at the impressive music fanatic’s career that holds back from being in awe, and instead gets to the heart of what’s driven the multi-award-winning producer.
Alternating between the present, where an octogenarian Quincy is coming to terms with new health concerns, and flashbacks to key moments in the past, Quincy deftly covers an impressive career and makes a convincing case for ensuring the man behind over 2,900 songs and over 300 albums gets the credit he deserves.
Available on Netflix