Being from New Jersey isn’t just about fighting over breakfast meats or saying “twenty-regular-cash” at the gas pump. The third inductee into the Union is a unique place, lush with rich history and lore. The state is probably best known for its famous boardwalks along the shoreline, or for being the diner capital of the U.S. with over 500 diners state-wide. But it’s far more than that. If you love factual films, or if you want to learn more about the charming attractions and storied history of the Garden State, these are five must-watch New Jersey documentaries.
1. Class Action Park (2020)
“Class Action Park” is the jaw-dropping story of the infamous Action Park, the most dangerous water park in history, nestled on a mountainside in Vernon, New Jersey. Celebrities, guests and former workers recount the chaos and exhilaration that gave Action Park its identity. The idea of a lawless water park dripping with adolescent mischief caused teens to pour in by the carload. Run by teenagers and flush with half-baked ride designs devoid of engineering expertise, Action Park embodied the anarchy of the ‘80s, arguably the last decade of kids having unsupervised fun.
The owner and founder, Gene Mulvihill, was ostracized from Wall Street due to his ethically ambiguous views on business. He then made his way to the sleepy town of Vernon, opening one of the country’s first modern water parks. True to his nature, Mulvihill firmly believed every ride should be fast and extreme. Eyebrow-raising ride designs that were denied by more reputable amusement parks were then brought to Mulvihill. Which he then put his own spin on during construction, by making them even more outrageous. This mentality resulted in countless injuries. Between the designs and poor record of safety, Mulvihill even needed to make a fake insurance company. It’s no surprise no real company would agree to cover the businesses.
Dive deeper into this gripping story by streaming “Class Action Park” on HBO Max.
2. The Champion: The Story of America’s First Film Town (2014)
New Jersey is the subject of many documentaries, and “The Champion” is perfect for anyone interested in film, or film history. It tells of the huge impact New Jersey made on the film industry, specifically the prolific movie town of Fort Lee. When people think of cinema, they usually think of the West Coast and Hollywood. But Fort Lee, New Jersey was the epicenter of cinema on the East Coast in the early 20th century. It was responsible for countless films, movie studios and innovations in the art of filmmaking. The main focus of the film was Champion Studio, the first permanent studio in Fort Lee.
The town’s varied landscape and stunning Palisades Cliffs was the ideal location to film movies ranging from Westerns to war films, and everything in between. Due to its budding reputation as a prime location, many independent studios began filming and operating out of Fort Lee in an attempt to cash in on the blossoming movie industry. Even well-known companies like Universal erected a studio right on Fort Lee’s Main Street in 1915. In the town’s heyday of the industry, 11 major film companies were operating out of Fort Lee. The first sophisticated use of cross-cutting for dramatic effect was performed in a local studio.
Rewind back to the glory days of Fort Lee, America’s first and famous film town by streaming it for free on Vimeo.
3. Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock & Roll (2019)
This documentary examines the past, present and future of the historic music town of Asbury Park. Living legends like Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt and Southside Johnny Lyon discuss what it was like getting their start, as a city divided by train tracks rose from the ashes. This film explores the tragic realities of early segregation, and the race riot that ensued on Independence Day, 1970 in Asbury Park. The Jazz and Blues music scenes were left in a weakened state from the social chaos. It all could have ended there, ut the Jersey sound was able to reemerge and unite a broken city. Famed venues such as The Stone Pony and Upstage are featured in the documentary, each fondly remembered by musicians and music fans alike. Asbury Park was the breeding ground for the unique Jersey sound. And it continues to produce promising musicians hailing from every genre.
Relive an iconic era that birthed the New Jersey sound by streaming “Asbury Park” on Amazon Prime Video.
4. Splinters & Sand: Rebuilding our Memories. Rebuilding the Jersey Shore (2013)
For many New Jersey natives, the Jersey Shore is home to some of the fondest memories at every stage of life — from the cotton candy stickiness of childhood to prom weekend shenanigans and bringing your own children to the boardwalks. The Jersey Shore and its depiction on television do not equate. It is a microcosm of summer.
“Splinters & Sand,” a New York Emmy nominee, is a powerful and moving documentary displaying the destruction of Seaside Heights and surrounding areas weeks after Hurricane Sandy. It is a chronicle of the uncertainties facing former boardwalk shop owners and members of the community that fell victim to the devastating force of Sandy. Some owners and operators cling to nostalgia and their love for the boardwalk culture. While others consider the higher price point for rebuilding unsustainable.
YouTube is home to an array of New Jersey documentaries like this one, free of charge.
5. The Real Sopranos (2006)
You don’t have to be from Jersey to love “The Sopranos.” This New Jersey documentary discusses the uncanny similarities between America’s favorite mobster family, The Sopranos, and the very real DeCavalcante family operating out of New Jersey. The Sopranos producers claim that their characters are purely fictional. But the striking resemblance to the Garden State branch of the Italian mob can’t be ignored. “The Real Sopranos” details the rise and fall of the DeCavalcante family and how the hit TV show may have aided in their demise.
Every fan of “The Sopranos” can enjoy this mobster memoir available on YouTube and DocumentaryHeaven.
Know of any other New Jersey documentaries worth checking out? Let us know in the comments below.
Main image from HBO Max