It's official: Biographical documentaries are having a moment. Films in the genre have been among the most notable movies in the past few years, including the thought-provoking film RBG (about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), the heart-warming documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? (about beloved Mr. Rogers), and the harrowing Whitney (about late singer Whitney Houston).
Unfortunately, not all of these popular nonfiction films are available to watch from the comfort of your couch, so we culled Netflix's vast library to find watch list-worthy biographical documentaries that are streaming now. Ranging from an untold story about the exceptional women who dared to reach for the stars (literally) to an intimate look at one of the most inspiring poets of our time, these nine films are proof that the genre has the power to change your life.
The Academy Award-winning documentary Amy lays bare the struggles British singer Amy Winehouse faced as she navigated life in the spotlight. This film features "her words, her music, her voicemails, her home videos, her friends, her family, her tormentors, and her timeless incandescence," writes Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. "Look, listen and weep."
Renowned documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles offers an intimate look into the life of self-described "geriatric starlet" and NYC-based style icon Iris Apfel in the film Iris. "It's a delight to spend time in Apfel's company, and thanks to Albert Maysles, we can," writes Walter Addiego in SF Gate.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (2016)
Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou is the subject of the documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. Even if you've read the incomparable writer's autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, this film should be at the top of your watchlist. "It's hard not to be inspired by a life this well-lived," reviews Ken Jaworowski in The New York Times.
Mercury 13 (2018)
Mercury 13 tells the story of some exceptional women who were screened for space flight only to have their dreams dashed when NASA selected only men for the mission. "This is the sort of film that begins modestly-seemingly only a piece of curious history-and grows steadily deeper as it moves to its climax, and that climax is a powerful one," writes Dorothy Rabinowitz in The Wall Street Journal.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)
Hedy Lamarr is widely known for her work on the silver screen, but the actress also invented a wireless form of communication referred that could have revolutionized mobile communications during World War II (had the U.S. government not dismissed the technology due to the fact that Lamarr was not a U.S. citizen). The documentary Bombshell "fascinates both as film history and as a sobering reminder of how little credit a woman like Lamarr received, even at the peak of her popularity," writes Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
The biographical documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? delves into the life of legendary singer, actress, and activist Nina Simone. The film "may not answer What Happened, Miss Simone?, but it does tell us why the question must be asked and will be asked, for a very long time," observes David Wiegand in SF Gate.
Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (2016)
In Restless Creature, viewers are privy to the life of prima ballerina Wendy Whelan as she prepares to depart from the New York City Ballet after decades with the company. This biographical documentary "isn't a mere celebration of a great artist," writes Moira Macdonald in The Seattle Times. "It's a moving portrait of what happens when that artist confronts the possibility of not being able to make that art anymore."
Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
The Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two chronicles the pop star's life at a pivotal moment, coupling the professional pressures of releasing a new album and the personal dilemma of receiving a fibromyalgia diagnosis. "Gaga's current struggle is just a struggle, not a statement about the human condition or about the singer's own career," writes Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic. "Inevitably, some will question her suffering—because she's a woman, because of the nature of her sickness, and because of her job as a performer."
Seeing Allred (2018)
Famed feminist attorney Gloria Allred (the woman behind high-profile cases against Bill Cosby and Donald Trump) is the subject of one of Netflix's latest biographical documentaries, Seeing Allred. The documentary "feels more vital than ever as a microcosm of all of the complexities and contradictions of the current state of feminism in the United States, during a time when forces seem to be conspiring to paint it in large, monochrome brushstrokes," writes Bridget Read in Vanity Fair.
I Am Sun Mu (2015)
Art aficionados and politics buffs will soak up I Am Sun Mu, a documentary on a former North Korean propaganda artist-turned subversive political art star. Sun Mu (a pseudonym that means "no boundaries) escaped his native North Korea in the 1990s, settled in Seoul, and began creating parody art featuring the Kim regime. This documentary directed by Adam Sjoberg "tracks the painter’s preparations for a solo show in Beijing — an opportunity freighted with risk — and in the process captures an increasingly surreal and disturbing series of events," writes Sheri Linden in The Hollywood Reporter.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
Those passionate about LGBTQ+ rights will want to add The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson to their watch list. The subject of the documentary wasn't just a prominent regular in NYC's art and gay scenes and model for Andy Warhol — she was also transgender activist who played key roles in the gay rights movement and Stonewall Riots in the late '60s and '70s. When her body was found in the Hudson River in 1992, many of her friends suspected foul play when the police labeled her death a suicide, and the film examines investigation that was opened in 2012.
Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (2016)
This loving tribute to Floyd Norman, Disney's first African-American animator, "it serves as an entertaining salute to an unsung figure whose considerable accomplishments well deserve recognition," writes movie critic Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter. Disney buffs will delight in hearing the behind-the-scenes story of Norman's career and the affectionate tales and testimonials of his friends and colleagues.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono commands $300 a seat at his three Michelin star-rated restaurant in Tokyo. Jiro Dreams of Sushi "is a documentary about a man whose relationship with sushi wavers between love and madness," wrote the late film critic, Roger Ebert. "Jiro exists to make sushi. Sushi exists to be made by Jiro. Do the math. Even at the high prices of his premium fresh ingredients, you realize he must be a rich man. But to what end?... If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough?"
He Named Me Malala (2015)
Emmy-winning documentary He Named Me Malala tells the inspiring story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani t who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban after speaking out on girls' rights to education. The film examines the teen activist and Nobel Peace Price Laureate's extraordinary life, her impassioned speeches before the United Nations, and how she rallied the world for her cause.
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)
Beyoncé pulls the curtain back for her Beyhive in her self-directed, Emmy-nominated documentary that chronicles "her diligent, meticulous preparations" ahead of her 2018 Coachella performance, writes Rolling Stone's Brittany Spanos. "[Homecoming] offers insight into the type of hard work it takes to be Beyoncé. As the behind-the-scenes footage in the concert film progresses, her role as director comes with the particular challenge of translating the energy of the massive performance, not only to the live audience but to the people either watching the show’s livestream or even the just-released concert film."