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A beginner’s guide to Louis Theroux: 5 docos you absolutely must watch

Louis Theroux is driven by a profound desire to genuinely get to know people, with an inclination for the weird. Characters and stories change — he made nearly 70 documentaries in 20 years —  but the formula remains; the awkward BBC journalist explores underground subcultures and deals with controversial topics, from the scary truth of the opioid epidemic and the dark reality behind sex trafficking, to religious extremes and a whole new rulebook on modern day relationships.

The perfect formula? British phlegm, empathy and long, disturbing silences. People love to confide in him, even when they feel they shouldn’t. Louis Theroux is the good guy, so spaced out that you’d tell him anything.

With Louis Theroux finally coming back to Australia in January 2020 with a brand-new live show, we thought we’d take some time to appreciate some of his best ever documentaries so far.

Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s depressing. It’s always mind-blowing, though. Here are 5 films any new fan of Louis Theroux should watch. 

My Scientology Movie (2015)

The Church of Scientology is a deeply weird organisation and, appropriately enough, Louis Theroux has made a weird doco about it. To make up for the lack of any actual material (due to his virtually zero access to the Church), Theroux shows up in LA, advertising his intention to film a series of scripted and unscripted scenes recreating key moments from the life of the Scientologists’ sinister chief, David Miscavige.

He auditions actors and filmed the audition process. So yeah, My Scientology Movie doesn’t really provide any new information about the cult and actually makes a pretty bad job at presenting what we already know. And that’s the point. Theroux’s Scientology movie is undoubtedly a smart piece about failing, improvising, and provoking. Definitely worth a watch.

When Louis Met… Jimmy (2000)

The documentary When Louis Met… Jimmy was released some 11 years  before the mass allegations against Jimmy Savile were made. In retrospect, Theroux’s movie is extremely awkward and creepy, but somehow necessary. We all knew Savile was a weirdo wearing skimpy shorts, gold plastic mirror glasses, and an inevitable cigar. But there was a side to Jimmy no one had really seen before.

Theroux gets close enough to actually see beyond the character and expose areas of Savile’s life, like his relationship with his dead mother he calls “The Duchess”. Theroux clearly gets attached to Savile, and has beat himself up ever since. When you look at it now, you realise that When Louis Met… Jimmy says a lot about Theroux too, and his own sense of failure for not recognising what Savile was.

Louis Theroux made another documentary — definitely bolder and more honest — about Savile in 2016 in an attempt to try to understand his failure to have spotted the alleged decades of abuse. Two flicks to watch in a row.

Louis and the Nazis (2003)

Louis Theroux travels to California to meet Tom Metzger, aka “the most dangerous racist in America”, and his 11-year-old twins who sing racist songs and play a computer game called Ethnic Cleansing in their spare time.

Theroux never really tries to discover why people are the way they are. He lets things speak for themselves. So when a visit to Mexico basically turns into a pub crawl, we see it, or when a skinhead rally turns out to be a handful of people in a dusty field, we see it. It’s one of those Theroux documentaries that really sticks with you.

Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends (1998-2000)

Yeah, the whole of Weird Weekends. The seventeen episodes are pretty much all absolutely brilliant and speak to the essence of Theroux. It’s what I call his Magnum Opus. The series ran for two years between 1998 and 2000 and documented Theroux’s weird encounters with some of America’s most bizarre happenings, events and rituals, by getting involved himself.

There is the one about UFOs, that one where he almost starred in a porn film, that one when he visited some swingers, and that time he tried to do gangsta rap down in New Orleans. “Jiggle, Jiggle, I like you more than a little, do you maybe want to fiddle?” And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.

The Most Hated Family in America (2007)

An up-close look at the family that’s at the core of the supremely intolerant Westboro Baptist Church. The Texas-based organisation led by Fred Phelps (who has since died) that pickets US soldiers’ funerals with placards reading “God Hates Fags” in protest at their country’s tolerance of homosexuality. It’s quite fascinating to see the power of a family to create its own bizarre ideology and pass it down through the generations.

The Most Hated Family in America also raises questions about the ethics of giving publicity to such extreme religious groups. Theroux did a follow-up this year called Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, an exploration of whether things have changed since founder Fred Phelps died five years ago. Spoiler, they have not.

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December 19, 2019