Being stuck in quarantine with a lack of live in-person drag shows has made me hankering for some good ol’ fashioned drag documentaries. The first place to start would, of course, be the iconic Paris Is Burning (1990) directed by Jennie Livingston about the Harlem ballroom scene in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic. Instantly quotable while documenting multiple powerful and moving narratives, it’s a must-watch for those first delving into queer documentaries. The recently restored version is available to own on DVD and Blu-ray.
Going from there, I’ve broken down films and a few select series to watch based on subject category. These are great binge-able films that will help make quarantine a little less monotonous.
Films About Drag Legends
There have been multiple documentaries about Marsha P. Johnson, who was at the frontlines of The Stonewall Riots and was a prominent part of the gay liberation movement and a vocal gay and transgender rights activist. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017), directed by David France, has its own set of behind-the-scenes controversy, but the film itself focuses on her tragic death and those who seek justice for her murder while also examing her life and legacy. Available to stream on Netflix.
Pay It No Mind: Marsha P. Johnson (2012), directed by Michael Kasino, features Johnson’s final interview in 1992 and looks at her life through those who knew her best. Available to stream on YouTube.
If we’re talking about drag legends, we must highlight one of the most recognizable and trailblazing queens of them all – Divine. I Am Divine (2013), directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, really paints the full picture of how the foul-mouthed, shocking, and groundbreaking drag persona came to be. Through the eyes of Divine’s friends and admirers, the film recounts how the John Waters‘ cult classic star became one of the world’s biggest celebrities. I Am Divine is available to stream on Netflix.
Arias with a Twist (2010), directed by Bobby Sheehan, gives us a glimpse at the creation of the one-person play of the same title. The play is a collaboration with drag legend and cabaret performer Joey Arias and accomplished puppeteer Basil Twist. The film goes in-depth on Arias’ background in the downtown New York art scene, particularly Joey’s rise to prominence in the late 70s and early 80s. It also expounds on the theatrical world of puppeteering that helps make both the show and the film an unusual combination that goes beyond your typical drag biography. It’s available to stream on Amazon Prime.
I had the pleasure of seeing the film Split (1993), directed by Ellen Fisher Turk and Andrew Weeks, at a special screening at the IFC Center. It was captivating to learn about the New York nightlife staple International Chrysis. Chrysis is a fascinating subject matter who oozes with charisma and charm on-screen. The film focuses on her life living as a transgender woman and highlights how she rose in the nightlife scene from the late 60s onward – even becoming a muse for Salvador Dalí. The film is like a lost treasure when it comes to drag history and gives a voice to an artist who was taken too early before her time. Split is currently streaming on Dekkoo.
The bold, daring, and immensely influential performance artist Leigh Bowery gets the documentary treatment in The Legend Of Leigh Bowery (2002), directed by Charles Atlas. Although Leigh never considered himself to be a drag queen, his contributions to fashion and club life in London have made a lasting impact. The film explores in depth the many projects Bowery was a part of while delving into the eye-catching fashions and hair-raising performance art that changed nightlife and the art world forever. Streaming now on YouTube.
My personal pick for this category is Dragtime (1997), directed by Patti Kaplan. It features a lot of New York drag legends and lets them speak about their experiences in their own words – while using performance footage that might otherwise be lost in time. It highlights a lot of the greats, including Lypsinka, Lady Bunny, Varla Jean Merman, Joey Arias, Charles Busch, Charles Pierce, and more. A must watch for anyone who loves the art of drag. Available to stream on YouTube.
Films About Wigstock
Following Lady Bunny’s yearly NYC drag concert event “Wigstock” throughout the 80s and 90s and up to the revival in 2018, there have been multiple documentaries on this event. HBO’s Wig (2019) directed by Chris Moukarbel is a great way to start, hearing from Miss Bunny herself on the subject, while also giving an informative history of New York nightlife from the 80s to today, with a focus on prominent nightlife performers and footage throughout Wigstock’s many iterations. Wig is available to stream on HBO.
After you check out Wig, one of my all-time favorite documentaries is Wigstock: The Movie (1995), directed by Barry Shils. It goes in-depth about the 1994 iteration of the festival, and there’s footage of full performances from some of the most influential drag performers of all time like RuPaul, Jackie Beat, Joey Arias, Lypsinka, Alexis Arquette and performance artist Leigh Bowery. The film is currently available on YouTube.
Films (And Series) About Drag Race Contestants
If you can’t get enough of RuPaul’s Drag Race and want to inquire more into the familiar, there are several documentaries following the lives of contestants from the show.
Drag Becomes Him (2015), directed by Alex Berry, mainly focuses on Jinkx Monsoon’s career and life pre-Drag Race growing up in the Pacific Northwest. It digs into the struggles and triumphs of an up-and-coming artist. It’s currently available on Amazon Prime.
Jinkx returns to the documentary format, this time with fellow queens like Alaska Thunderfuck, Sharon Needles, Katya Zamolodchikova, and more in The Queens (2019), directed by Adrienne Gruben. The documentary gives a glimpse into their lives post-Drag Race performing on tour while exploring each queen’s unique backstory and point of view. Currently available to rent or buy on Amazon.
Other drag documentary series following Drag Race alumni post-Drag Race include Follow Me and Werq The World both available to stream on WOW Presents Plus. Sasha Velour’s Nightgowns series about her Brooklyn-based drag extravaganza is available on the Quibi app. And Alyssa Edwards’ Dancing Queen, which follows Alyssa’s dance studio and personal life in Mesquite, Texas, is available on Netflix.
My pick for the best Drag Race-related documentary currently is Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts (2019), directed by Nicholas Zeig-Owens. It takes an in-depth look at one of the most beloved drag queens to come from the show, Trixie Mattel. An intimate portrait of a performer with the humblest of roots, the documentary shows the stakes and drama that comes with being crowned into the “Drag Race Hall Of Fame.” Read WERRRK.com’s review of the film here. It is available to stream on Netflix.
One of the most talked-about drag documentaries of all time is The Queen (1968), directed by Frank Simon. A cult favorite, the film focuses on the “Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest” held in New York in 1967. The film captures a very specific time in queer history, and *spoiler alert* delivers an explosive ending via contestant Crystal LaBeija, who would go and continue to make herstory of her own by redefining what a pageant could be and who could participate (and win.) The newly restored version is now streaming on Netflix.
The film Pageant (2008), directed by Ron Davis and Stewart Halpern-Fingerhut, follows the stories of contestants competing in the 34th Miss Gay America contest. The film is a behind-the-scenes look at the pageant process through the eyes of its dedicated and determined contestants. Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race are sure to love the film’s confessional interview style and how each queen creates their gender-bending illusions. Not to mention appearances of pre-Drag Race’s Victoria “Porkchop” Parker and an Alyssa Edwards cameo to boot. Pageant is streaming now on Vimeo.
In Pageant, the doc focuses on the Miss Gay America contest – which forbids hormones and surgical enhancement and whose contestants often identify as cisgender men. But in The Queens (2018), directed by Mark Saxenmeyer, focuses on the Miss Continental pageant, which allows transgender women to compete equally alongside cisgender men. There’s glitz, glamour, and lots of drama thrown in for the battle of the crown. The Queens is available to rent or own on Vimeo.
If you’ve seen Paris Is Burning or are familiar with the Ballroom scene, you would know that traditional drag is only one part of a larger competition. Contestants can compete in one or multiple categories based on appearance and performance, personalities, fashion, and dance styles like voguing.
How Do I Look (2006), directed by Wolfgang Busch, is a gritty styled documentary that looks at the generation storming the runway after Paris Is Burning. The documentary is complete with interviews from the ballroom stars from the 1990s and early 2000s, along with history lessons on topics like how the balls began, voguing, and how it influenced Madonna and the world. Available to rent or own on Amazon.
Kiki (2016), directed by Sara Jordenö, looks at the kiki scene, a subsection of the larger ballroom scene made up of teenagers and young adults competing for trophies at their own specific balls. Twenty-six years after Paris Is Burning was released, this new documentary looks at the contemporary LGBTQ+ scene in Harlem and around New York City. The film’s subjects reflect on similar issues such as transgender identity, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, and acceptance in society. Available to stream on Hulu.
My House (2018), is a Viceland ten-episode series that also looks at the modern-day ballroom scene. The series does a good job of explaining the technical aspects of the competition while featuring the ballroom stars of today. Available to stream on YouTube.
Club Kids Documentaries
There has been a lot of media output on the Club Kids founder Michael Alig who became notorious for the brutal murder of fellow Club Kid, Angel Melendez. In the 90s, Alig was a NYC party promoter who pushed the boundaries when it came to drugs, parties, and social behavior in public. The Club Kids were not strictly drag-based but rather focused on creating unique looks of self-expression that changed on a nightly basis. Party Monster: The Shockumentary (1998), directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, dives right into the story. The film was released two years after the 1996 murder and is currently available to stream on WOW Presents Plus.
Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig (2015), directed by Ramon Fernandez, acts almost as a sequel to Party Monster. It looks at the same story with a broader social and historical context of New York nightlife in the 90s. The doc was filmed two decades later with many of the same talking heads as Party Monster and leads the audience up to Alig’s prison release and what exactly that entails. Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Susanne Bartsch: On Top (2017), directed by Anthony Coronna and Alexander Smith, shares the story of a New York nightlife staple for over three decades. Susanne Bartsch is presented as the ultimate promoter who’s always one step ahead of the pop-culture consciousness. The documentary also takes an intimate look at her family life that showcases the duality of being a matriarch at home during the day and being one to the Club Kids at night. Available to stream on Netflix.
Films About Drag Kings
Venus Boyz (2002), directed by Gabrielle Baur, is probably the most in-depth documentary-style look at drag kings and the ideology behind them available to date. The documentary is filmed in a very specific time in the New York and London club scenes. It follows both cisgender and transgender male performers and their unique stories. The film explores each king’s art, sexuality, and expression of masculinity. The documentary is available to stream based by region through Kanopy or to rent or own on FlixFling.
Kings, Queens, & In Betweens (2017), directed by Gabrielle C. Burton, looks at the Columbus, Ohio LGBT+ and drag scene with a wide net of interviews and performances. Pre-Drag Race Nina West is heavily featured as is her drag mother, Virginia West. Drag King performers play a significant role in the documentary, which tackles the topics of gender and sexuality and its many variations and forms. Available to rent or own on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.
Films About Latinx Performers
Mala Mala (2014), directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, primarily focuses on the lives of various transgender members of Puerto Rico’s LGBT+ community. Some of whom work in Puerto Rico’s celebrated drag nightlife scene. Cameos include Drag Race’s April Carrión and Kandy Ho. Available to rent or own on Amazon Prime and YouTube.
South Beach On Heels (2014), directed by Dmitry Zhitov, follows eight drag performers (including Drag Race’s Latrice Royale) from diverse ethnic backgrounds in the Miami and South Florida drag scene. A great look at Miami’s legendary Palace Bar, the documentary features costumes, makeup, and personalities so bold and brazen it could only be found in Florida. Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
San Francisco Drag Docs
Ladies & Gentlemen: Phatima Rude (2014), directed by Paul R. King, guides audiences through Phatima Rude’s life story through their first-person confessional-style storytelling. A San Francisco drag staple for over twenty years, Phatima created edgy and unique performances that pushed away from the mainstream. Out of drag, Phatima recounts a life of homelessness, drug addiction, body modification, and battles with mental health. Available to stream on Vimeo.
A Wig And A Prayer – The Peaches Christ Story (2016), directed by Jeff Schlags, is a short documentary film about the San Francisco performer and theatrical producer Peaches Christ. Christ goes into her drag roots, finding her voice in San Francisco, and how the legendary Cockettes helped inspire her to create the popular show “Midnight Mass.” Available to stream on Vimeo.
The Cockettes (2002), directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber, explores the 70s drag collective. A diverse group of performers that included cisgender women in femme presenting drag, and even one straight guy – The Cockettes exemplified alternative drag and became a pop culture phenomenon. Their quick rise to fame and even quicker flame out is one for the history books and a captivating documentary subject. Available to stream on Tubi.
Other Documentaries Of Note
Narrated by Mx Justin Vivian Bond, The Gospel Of Eureka (2018), directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, focuses on the city of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The documentary tackles narratives covering Eureka’s LGBT+ community, it’s drag nightlife scene and the widespread Evangelical Christian presence within the city. It’s an interesting look into how these groups intersect with and around each other, and how two seemingly polar opposite communities may have more in common than meets the eye. Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Several documentaries and series spotlight the modern-day hustle of up-and-coming New York drag talent, many of whom end up competing on RuPaul’s Drag Race and Dragula after production ends. Dragged (2016), directed by Christopher Birk, follows multiple narratives and gives a glimpse of New York nightlife around 2015 in Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village. The theatrical cut and extended cut are both available to stream on YouTube.
If you like your documentary television series with a musical and reality show twist, then Shade: Queens of NYC is a must-watch. The first and only season is available to stream on Fusion.
Drag Kids (2019), directed by Megan Wennberg, snapshots a very specific time of life for four different drag queens from three different countries, all under the age of twelve. While the subject of children performing in drag in public spaces has been a hot topic within and outside of the drag community, the documentary stays focused on these young performers and their dreams and quest for acceptance. Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Do you have any fave drag documentaries? Think we missed any? Comment below!