Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published July 15th 2019
Documentaries can be awesome
While this will come as absolutely no surprise to my regular readers, I like music. I have written about music at Weekend Notes so often I could not list all the columns without some-one wanting to beat me over the head with a wet fish. And the little anecdotes sprinkled throughout those old columns have shown how often I used music to do or help me to do many things, especially in relationships. Further, when I am writing my fiction, I like nothing better than to have something playing in the background. And that can be literally anything. Last night it was Beethoven's 9th symphony; at the moment (while I type this) it is Iron Maiden's Live After Death album.
If music be the food of love, play on! (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)
However, I also enjoy many music documentaries. In fact, so many that when I sat down to list my favourites, I could not reduce the list enough to make a column that people could actually, you know, read without it turning into a novel. So I decided on a different tack.
These are music documentaries that are different in a certain way. Maybe it is the way they approached the subject, maybe it is the subject itself, maybe it is the way the final piece is put together, but they are not straight forward histories of either a band (Queen's Queen: Days Of Our Lives is a brilliant example of this) or a music style or type (the BBC's documentary series Dancing In The Street is superb in this regard). I have also decided to limit myself to documentaries released from the year 2000 onwards, and to not include documentaries shown as multiple part TV series (Seven Ages Of Rock falls into this category).
More to the point, I really enjoy all of these.
So, here, in order of the year, they were released, are 5 music documentaries that are different in one regard or another, and yet all tell compelling stories.
The Filth And The Fury (2000)
Directed by: Julien Temple This film had an interesting genesis. In 1980, Temple created the documentary The Great Rock And Roll Swindle, the tale of the English punk band The Sex Pistols. But it was told in a way that made the band's manager Malcolm McLaren seem to be the real star of the show. Now, I like it, but it certainly isn't one of my favourite music docos. However, 20 years later, Temple went back and made The Filth And The Fury, telling the same story of the same band, but this time from the band's viewpoint, and with the benefit of 20 years' worth of hindsight, and looking at the times as well, the fact that the Sex Pistols could only have come about in that world. And what is visually stunning about it is that the band members' year 2000 contributions are all shot in silhouette form, making it feel almost ethereal in the way it expresses itself. This is a story of sadness and artists being manipulated and what happens when the music is no longer the focus. I am a fan of John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), and this documentary made me see him as a human being, not just some sneering face. (Mind you, I own not only Sex Pistols but also PiL stuff; I am a fan of Lydon, and he gives the best interviews since Frank Zappa.)
Directed by: Ondi Timoner
This is an intriguing documentary looking at the course trajectories of two bands. The Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols started off as struggling bands whose leaders (Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor-Taylor respectively) had a strange "frenemy" (to use the modern vernacular) love-hate relationship. The documentary details the rise of Dandy Warhols from struggling band to world-touring, festival-headlining mega-act (I own 5 of their albums) and contrasts it with the almost self-destructive tendencies of the Brian Jonestown Massacre (I own one album). This is not just about the music or the music industry, but how sometimes genius is its own worst enemy, and how sometimes, no matter how talented someone is, they will not succeed if they don't compromise at least a little. Oh, and there is a contrast concerning drug busts that tells you just how much of a role luck plays in things. I find it actually a little depressing when looking at BJM, and the way it follows these two bands over the course of a number of years is something rarely seen.
Beware Of Mr Baker (2012)
Directed by: Jay Bulger This is a documentary about Ginger Baker, one of my favourite drummers, drummer for Cream and many other bands (I own not only most of Cream's stuff but also a handful of other albums he's on, including PiL's Album, one of John Lydon's bands… it's rather circular, really). Yes, it is a document of his life. But it is also a look at the man himself, how he is now… and that is an angry, unpleasant man… or, as John Lydon put it, a man who does not compromise. To the credit of Bulger, he left nothing out and told the tale, warts and all. Baker comes out of this as a great musician, but as a not so great father, boss or person. The thing is, I don't think the Baker shown in this doco would actually care. Now, what takes this out of the ordinary documentary is the inclusion of a number of scenes showing the difficulty Bulger had in dealing with Baker, sort of a behind-the-scenes look, if you will. How he stuck with it and produced something like this is remarkable.
A Band Called Death (2013)
Directed by: Jeff Howlett & Mark Covino
This is about – surprise! – a band called Death. But it is taken from a different perspective. You see, Death were one of the first black punk acts ever, really pre-punk, straddling garage rock and later punk and heavy metal, made up of a family of brothers, who recorded some fantastic songs, and then things fell apart, and one of the members passed away. While this documentary examines that history, it does so from the present day with the surviving members and the children of the original members discovering their music and then going on to perform the music with their own band, while the original surviving members get back up on the stage as well. It is a story of hope overcoming everything, and how real talent will eventually find a way. It is, in the end, a happy story, despite all that had happened in the past and the poverty and the modern world. I do not own any Death stuff – it is really hard to find – but am on the lookout.
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
Directed by: Morgan Neville
This documentary is remarkable primarily for the subject material – the backing singers. These are the women who recorded those wonderful back-up phrasings and appeared on stage with some of the greatest musicians in the world, and yet we hardly know any of their names. They become a part of the endless background of the concert of listening experience, and yet this documentary made me take them a lot less for granted than I admit I had done for too much of my life. I just accepted that they were there, but this makes them into people with their own dreams and loves and lives, and sometimes those dreams fell by the wayside as they stayed, literally, 20 feet from stardom. I found this documentary actually a little sad. While it is put forth as a celebration, I still couldn't help but feel this took too long to become known. However, the music is glorious and it deservedly won the Academy Award for best documentary.
Five slightly different, really intriguing and rather good documentaries on music. And I would say you don't have to like the music to appreciate the documentaries. It does help (and I do like all the music portrayed here) but it is not essential. The look at the music industry, the world of the times, the personalities, the nature of art and genius… it's all there. These are great documentaries, not just great music documentaries.
Hope you can track them down and get a chance to see them
…and why not make your own doco about your own local pub band? You never know…