Louis Theroux Has A Brand New Series, So Let’s Revisit His Classics
The bespectacled BBC presenter is back with his first batch of new docos in almost two years.
[Update March 15, 2016]: Louis Theroux has announced his first Australian speaking tour for later this year! The documentary maker will be on stage in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane this September talking about his work which spans 23 years and also answering questions from the audience.
Tickets are available now. But, this time in-between seems ideal to diligently catch up on every single thing he’s ever made. Here are a few great places to start:
“Hi, I’m Louis.”
Oh, how I’ve longed to once again hear those words. It’s been almost two years since everybody’s favourite string-bean documentarian served up a bespectacled nose-dive into an otherwise unseen deep end, but it’s felt like a lifetime. Louis Theroux is back, and this time… he’s tanned.
Back in early 2013, Theroux and his family became official residents of Los Angeles so that he could begin his exploration of three City of Angels subcultures. His new series, appropriately titled LA Stories, traverses the topics of neglected canines, terminally-ill patients, and relocated sex offenders. In other words, just some light-hearted viewing for a lazy weekend afternoon.
City Of Dogs is first up, and for anyone partial to those doting, tongue-sweating tail-waggers, it’s a tough 51 minutes of television. Previously, Louis has placed us before castrated paedophiles, rotten-toothed tweakers, and Mr. Westboro himself, the late Fred Phelps, but seeing these innocent creatures lost within the concrete graveyard slums of outer LA is perhaps the saddest thing he’s ever put to screen. A viewer can forcibly remove themselves from Theroux’s previous documentaries, as they largely involve subjects with which we’ll never have to interact. We can attempt to ignore our hearts and our guts and instead find intellectual engagement with how these slices of life fit into the larger pie. But with City Of Dogs — when we’re exposed to a canine facility that euthanises umpteen inmates per day, some of which could be chewing on a plastic chair in our backyards — one almost wonders why Louis went there in the first place.
As always, Louis meets a range of colourful characters, including Dog Man, a boisterous Compton resident who rescues stray pooches and attempts to return them to pet-ready status; Malcolm, an ex-gangbanger that ‘weaponises’ dogs as ferocious alternatives to firearms; and the Zen dog trainer, an unsettlingly confident yet seemingly ineffectual mutt whisperer. All three don’t offer much hope for the 60,000 LA strays that continue to — both metaphorically and literally — chase their own tatty tails; the only glimmer of hope comes in the form of Brandon Fouche, a man who takes a Cujo-esque dog and almost immediately transforms it into a cuddly sidekick.
City Of Dogs — like the third installment of his 2012 series Tough Love, which focused on the horribly unfair disease that is dementia — isn’t high on the rewatchability scale. But Louis is back, and that’s reason enough to celebrate with the extremely difficult task of compiling some of his best documentaries.
The Most Hated Family In America (2007) & The Most Hated Family In America In Crisis (2011)
Fred Phelps, the hateful, bigoted head of the Westboro Church, poisoned his family tree into thinking they were they only ones fit for heaven. Louis made two documentaries on this indoctrinated community, tailing them as they picketed soldier’s funerals and waited for an ever-postponed rapture.
The first saw Louis relentlessly questioning members of the church, watching on as young children held up signs brandishing slogans such as ‘God Hates Fags’, and made us tense with worry over the fact that these kinds of people even existed. The second, made four years later, made us sigh in collective relief, as many members of Westboro had come to their senses and shunned their lineage for more compassionate horizons. Now that Phelps is six feet under, one can only hope that if Louis ever went on to make a third installment, there wouldn’t be enough members left to press.
Miami Megajail Parts I & II (2011)
It was difficult to choose between this and Behind Bars (2008), Louis’s first leap over the walls of a US prison, but Miami Megajail wins, as it’s baffling that such a place even exists. Main Jail, Miami, is a massive, overcrowded facility for inmates arrested for all severities of offences, but here’s the catch: they’re all yet to be convicted. That’s right, the red-tape of the American justice system is so thick and tangled that many inmates have sat in this purgatory for years, and what’s even more astounding is that many prefer it that way, willingly prolonging the liminal shitstorm in favour of what could be far more permanent sentences. Louis meets a range of characters you’d never want to pass in a dark alley, but none more disturbing than a dweeby, softly-spoken and unassuming inmate, who initially seems as if he should be anywhere but prison, but later suggests he’s far more unpredictable than any of his overtly-unhinged fellow inmates.
Louis, Martin And Michael (2003)
One of the most satisfying aspects of an LT documentary is the access he and the BBC manage to gain. There’s rarely an uncombed nook or cranny in any of the worlds he enters. Louis, Martin And Michael is the most atypical of Louis’s oeuvre, as it’s defined by his lack of access — a lack of access to none other than Mr. Michael Jackson.
Initially promised an interview with and potential doco on Jackson by the King of Pop’s close friend, unofficial spokesman and self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller, Louis quickly discovers that due to his “interviewing technique”, the access has been revoked and instead awarded to iTV’s Martin Bashir. But working with this hurdle would prove arguably just as revealing about Jackson’s world as any trip to Neverland (Bashir’s documentary would go on to paint Jackson with a more accusatory brush than Theroux’s could ever have); instead, Louis interviewed Geller, Jackson’s father, and Majestik, a man who claims to be Michael’s personal magician. All three of these men seemed to use their ties to Jackson to serve their own interests, and by the end of the doco, one can only assume that Michael Jackson’s insulation and paranoia were more than justified.
Louis And The Brothel (2003)
Louis Theroux is the last person you’d ever expect to see in the dimly-lit hallways of a brothel, which is partly why this particular sojourn is so compelling. Wild Horse Adult Resort & Spa — a large-scale facility created by an ex-lady of the night and her former client — is both home and workplace to a group of young escorts. In this particular doco, Louis’s faux-naive method of plucking truth from his subjects can’t hide his squeamishness (particularly with an Andrew Denton lookalike who seemed to thoroughly believe in his ‘girlfriend experience’), nor his (however misguided) sympathy for the girls, but what’s fascinating is his developing friendship with Haley, Wild Horse’s most tempestuous and outspoken sex worker. Audiences were privy to Louis’s increasing fascination with the woman, and one can’t help but assume it wasn’t merely journalistic. In another life, huh Louis?
Gangster Rap (2000)
It would be doing Louis a disservice if we didn’t highlight one of his lighter efforts. The Gangster Rap episode of his Weird Weekends series is hilarious without being slight, following his attempt to break into the world of underground hip-hop. Audiences are exposed to a few genuine hustlers that are using rhythm and flow as an attempt to break free from the ghetto, but also to others who display such a cavernous gap between their lives and their hip-hop personas, including the university educated and multimillionaire entrepreneur Master P, who despite probably wearing underwear made of 24-carat gold, still harps on about “keeping it real”.
The most memorable moment in this weird weekend comes when Louis, having devised his new hip-hop persona, battles a far superior rapper on a local radio show. Anyone not tickled by Britain’s most renowned Where’s Wally? lookalike claiming “I want to see you jiggle jiggle” is probably bereft of a soul.
Louis Theroux’s LA Stories will premiere in Australia on BBC Knowledge, from October 13 to October 15 at 9.30pm.
Jeremy Cassar is a screenwriter from Sydney.