Comparison is the thief of joy. There’s nothing truer in the space of the professional artist, in the neverending hierarchy that separates an Oscar winner from an eighth-grade camera whiz making a home movie with his friends. Artists are blessed with an ability to create, yes, but also cursed with a widespread inability to accept creation as the ultimate prize. To create something, to give of yourself to the world around you, is a beautiful thing.
The ugly truth, though, is that’s rarely enough. You need clicks. You need recognition. You need to climb one step up the ladder of creative attention, to widen that audience and self-fulfilling sense of achievement. You need to feel important, to feel special. Art, then, becomes Icarus’ wings, and creation a failed fly into the sun. It’s not just enough to share; it becomes a militant obsession to outdo what you’ve done before for more, more, more.
In Kevin Perjurer’s latest documentary Disney Channel’s Theme: A History Mystery, nostalgia unearths reluctant truth. Perjurer’s Defunctland YouTube channel has become a mainstay in nostalgic excavation, a boneyard of yesterday’s strangest pop culture phenom and corporate America’s most embarrassing failures. Perjurer and his Defunctland team have spent years trying to understand those big and small oddities of their past.
Their work has become vital in understanding 90s and 00s family culture, and in understanding how the companies who catered to that audience ticked during their biggest time of expansion and experimentation. In other words, they made the rise and downfall of Nickelodeon’s Orlando hotel feel cinematic. That’s not easy to do.
In 2021, Perjurer weaves a story of corporate malpractice with a full-length documentary about Disney’s FastPass system. It’s the type of Disney study the Mouse House wouldn’t touch in a million years, and the kind of niche project that an independent creative like Perjurer can best bring to life. It’s a maddening look at how corporate influence can turn a nifty success in engineering into a Lovecraftian nightmare machine that continues to haunt the world’s most popular tourist destination. It showed that Perjurer and his team were ready to really tackle the independent documentary space.
Disney Channel’s Theme: A History Mystery may just be the crown jewel of Perjurer’s budding filmography. What starts as a fun deep dive back into the origins of the Disney Channel turns into something much more revelatory. Perjurer’s journey into trying to find who exactly wrote the four-note tune that played on the progra bumper, that little “da-da-da-da” that usually had some sort of network star waving a glowing wand to make a Mickey head. It signaled, indeed, you are watching the Disney Channel, and you aren’t going to want to turn it off anytime soon.
Disney is everywhere and nowhere all at once, a company that has so carefully cultivated its brand and voice in the last 20 years that you forget there was a time where it didn’t own everything on Earth. There was a time where Marvel and Lucasfilm weren’t on the roster, and Pixar was its own entity. It was a time where Disney was more of a competitor than a conqueror, and Perjurer’s body of work has highlighted that space just about as good as anybody. With this latest documentary, Perjurer explores the very nature of network identification itself. He repels into the spaces between the televisions shows, those little snippets of broadcasting that help connect the audience to the network they are engaging with. In one way, they are magnets meant to harness an audience’s undivided attention at all times of day. In another way, they are personality builders, meant to give a network a life unto itself. They matter.
Perjurer discovers quickly that the identity of who wrote the Disney Channel theme is not easily found with a Google search. No, it sparks a long investigation that takes him down numerous rabbit holes and surprising discoveries. The past can be hilarious for how it plays in the present, and part of Perjurer’s genius comes with finding the exact way to nail down something like the “hold on, what?” nature of Disney Channel’s post-9/11 “Express Yourself” PSAs. Did Disney think having a preteen Spencer Breslin talk about how he can’t stop talking about 9/11 would help its audience? Somehow!
The humor subsides at a certain point when leads run cold. However, that’s when the documentary really turns into something profound. As Perjurer discovers a new door to unlock his answer, he finds something much more telling about the nature of artists themselves and their art. In the end, whether he finds out the identity of this mystery composer or not, he has to confront that they took finding in the first place.
Unlike a major director or a beloved actor, the person who made the Disney Channel theme is not a household name. They’re not even easily recognizable with a Google search. A guy literally made an entire documentary about just trying to put a name to the tune. It highlights something uncomfortable about an artist’s relationship to their art: what if you create something that so outlasts you that nobody knows you made it? Is it just enough for the song to live on, even if you’re not heralded for your work? What if this is all you do? What if you don’t go on to top the charts, sell out the stadiums and win the Grammys? Can you find joy and purpose in just being able to provide a television station its little bumper jingle?
Perjurer’s work takes on a bit of a metanarrative as the creator begins to question this in his work, in if he’s comfortable in just being a YouTuber who makes videos for Disney fans, nostalgia hounds and theme park enthusiasts. Is he a documentarian? Is his work serious enough to matter? What Perjurer finds in the last third plays with the same shock of the final reveal in The Usual Suspects. He gets an answer, one way or the other, and what he finds unpacks is a showstopper. The unsung artist takes center stage, and Perjurer and his audience learn a wallop of wisdom about why creation and comparison will never be able to fully co-exist. You must learn to love your lot in life, Perjurer explains, and be proud of what you’re able to contribute, no matter how many people give you your flowers or how much your name is as synonymous with your creation.
In what might just be the most innovative and heart-wrenching American documentary since Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead, Disney Channel’s Theme: A History Mystery gives Perjurer a culmination of what has made his Defunctland work so well. He joins the fantastic work filmmaker Jon Bois and Secret Base are doing in the independent sports documentary realm to show the power in releasing DIY documentary projects on YouTube. Even more than that, Perjurer finds a way to conjure meaning out of nostalgia and give an entire generation of creators a reassurance that their work matters, even if they aren’t the focal point. His best project yet is not to be missed. Perjurer fashions himself as the Werner Herzog-meets-Bo Burnham of independent documentaries, and should be a mainstay in this space for years to come. We need people like Perjurer to help us understand our past, and in turn, ourselves, just a little bit better than we did before.