Top of the Docs #42 – Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2021)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be looking at documentaries that chart our history.

When we think of BBC Four documentaries, our mind usually wanders to one of two things. The first is a lauding biographical of a musician or artist, usually from the mid-to-late 20th century, featuring plenty of notable talking heads, and an appropriately nostalgic soundtrack. The second is a travelogue by a celebrity recognisable to those within a certain niche, or of a certain age, seeing them traverse anywhere from Patagonia to the Manchester Ship Canal. The one figure who has bucked this trend is Adam Curtis, and this week we look at his most recent effort – Can’t Get You Out of My Head.

Renowned for his breadth of research and incisive analysis, Curtis’ documentaries usually focus on an aspect of history, exploring its cultural, social and political impacts. These aspects range from a particular period, to abstract concepts, and Can’t Get You Out of My Head falls into the latter camp, giving us “an emotional history” of the 20th century.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head has many merits. At around eight hours in length, the film is given room to explore a number of nooks and crannies that perhaps would have been dropped in a shorter doc. Curtis, as usual, manages to pull a number of interesting threads from post-war society right up to today. For example, a group satirically suggesting there may be an underground global society called the Illuminati in the 1960s, in an attempt to ridicule such conspiracies, could have no idea how detrimental their project would be to their own cause decades later. This has always been Curtis’ strength, an ability to connect the dots in history that we otherwise may not see.

The problem is, it has all become rather formulaic. Curtis has recycled this format again and again, from It Felt Like A Kiss, to Hypernormalisation, to Can’t Get You Out of My Head. And with such a long runtime this has left the film feeling surprisingly shallow at times. There is also the issue that Curtis has a clear set of historical interests, we know what to expect from his films, and this allows for some of the magic to wear off. The concept of this film is incredible, the issue is in the far too familiar delivery.

One other small gripe is the lack of exploration into the cultural history of the internet. Although Curtis is right to point out that many of our modern problems originate in the 20th century, it is impossible to dissect modern politics, or even society for that matter without at least some understanding of the cultural impact of certain parts of the internet, be that 4Chan, Mumsnet, or even simply the shift from forums to social media. Though touched on, this feels like quite the oversight given the sheer scope, and running time, Can’t Get You Out of My Head boasts.

Curtis is no doubt one of Britain’s best historical documentarians. Though Can’t Get You Out of My Head is far from his best, it is still a worthy documentary, and one that blows most standard BBC Four fair out of the water. Rusty, slightly tired, but with an interesting core, Can’t Get You Out of My Head may prompt a rethink in Curtis as to how best to approach history in the informational age.

Trailer for Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Can’t Get You Out of My Head is available to stream on the BBC iPlayer.

Header image courtesy of the BBC