The art of the music documentary is a delicate one. A good one strikes a balance between moving performance footage and revealing backstage confessions, telling a story while illuminating the artist’s impact on both fans and the culture around them.
“Concert films” don’t count, so sorry, but The Band’s ‘The Last Waltz & Talking Heads’ ‘Stop Making Sense and other great concert films are not what we are talking about here..
We are talking about history and personality. And occasionally a real breakthrough. Something that transcends even the music played.
Let’s just get a few out-of-the-way.
There are three that if you have not seen, then you should:
1) Not tell anybody
2) Go and buy them. Immediately. At least rent them.
They are “Don’t look back”, the Dylan documentary that captured the then 23-year-old songwriter when he really was cool. If you don’t understand the Dylan mystique, you will after watching this. Next is “The Beatles Anthology” which is required viewing, even though John Lennon’s legacy is only told in past interviews and as a whole seems to lack the subtext of what else was happening in the world around them. The third is “Gimme Shelter”. Talk about getting more than you bargained for. The Maysles Brothers came out to shoot some footage of the Rolling Stones during their 1969 tour of America that was to commence with a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California. Hiring the Hell’s Angels as your festival security clearly falls into the “terrible idea” file and it almost feels pre-ordained that someone is likely to be killed in the process. Sure enough, as footage shows, a man is knifed to death while the band plays as if their own lives depended on it.
But there are some others that might not be as well-known that need to be checked out if you are any kind of music fan.
-“Anvil! The Story Of Anvil”
An incredible story of a band that inspired a generation of musicians, but failed to make it as big as they should have. Following washed up, 50-year-old rockers Rob Reiner and Steve Kudlow on an immense comeback tour this film is inspiring and hilarious. And more of a reality then the rags to riches stories that VH1 always puts together.
-“Be here to Love me: A Film About the Life of Townes Van Zandt”
Not just a great documentary about a truly great “songwriter’s songwriter” (just watch Willie Nelson, Kris Kristopherson and Guy Clark put their hand over their heart when they talk about him) but it’s just a great film period. It actually goes far past the “music” aspect of the man’s life and makes you wonder is it worth it to pay a price for art.
-“The Kid’s are Alright”
You may know this one. The quintessential Who documentary. It does it without turning the movie into a plodding timeline. Just lets you know not only The Who, but why. Also required viewing.
-“Before the Music Dies” (B4MD)
If you were ever worried about the state of popular music, this will give you all the reasons to make you realize you should be. Now technically this is not an “artist” doc, but it does contain some of the best artist interviews you will ever see.
A couple of music fans went out to explore just exactly what has gone wrong, and came up with much more access and justification than they expected. It’s wonderful, too true, and a bit sad.
-“Runnin’ Down a Dream
Peter Bogdonovich directed this 4 hour documentary about am Man who had up until then really let the music do the talking for him. But this doesn’t leave much out. Tom Petty’s whole career is touched on be it with The Heartbreakers, solo, or the Traveling Willburys. It takes it’s sweet time but is a feast for fans and a joyous confirmation of the vitality of the collective creative process.
-“Some Kind of Monster”
You don’t have to be a Metallica fan to get drawn in by the chaos and calamity consuming the heavy-metal icons as they bicker and fight like toddlers. The film peaks when the band’s two lead guitarists confront each other, and Dave Mustaine makes Lars Ulrich cry.
-Who is Harry Nilsson and Why is Everybody Talking about him?
It answers both questions, interviewing nearly three dozen friends and family members of the maverick singer-songwriter, a frequent collaborator of The Ex-Beatles who at the height of his early-’70s popularity alienated his fans and label supporters with a series of aggressively non-commercial albums. Interviews with Robin Williams, Brian Wilson and Yoko Ono give insight into this complicated artist, but the documentary’s real draw is rare performance footage of Nilsson in his prime. And what a voice the man had….
-And lastly: “Scott Walker: 30th Century Man
Scott Walker was once a popular and top-selling pop star, both as a solo act and with the group the Walker Brothers (none of them really named Walker) he was even something of a teen sex symbol in Britain. They had a couple of hits (“Make It Easy on Yourself,” “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”) before Scott broke off and went solo. His first solo albums consisted of songs by other songwriters while he worked up the courage to perform his own stuff; his productions were technically pop songs, but sonically complex and mysterious. Then Walker became a kind of recluse, and eventually completely turned his back on the “pop” music that could have made him really famous and drifted into stuff that would make Captain Beefheart scratch his head. Very weird, but I went and bought The Walker Brothers greatest hits the next day.
The ones that work the best are the documentaries that give you the history and the music, but give you more. They stay with you. You might not even know why, but they stay with you.