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An In Depth Guide To The Best Rockumentaries

by Dale Shaw
19 November 2013 17 Comments

Remember when music documentaries weren't about Katy Perry and Justin Bieber? When they were about, oh, what's it called...music? Here's a rundown of the best the genre has to offer

Dig!

OK, this was a bit of a mindfuck. Once you start to think about music documentaries and films about bands, you realise there are a monumental shitload of great ones. Picking a fortunate few is a completely frustrating and ultimately pointless exercise. Originally I was going to do the best ten. But I couldn’t. So instead I picked a ludicrous amount. And for that I am truly sorry. It still just barely scratches the surface (for instance I forgot Scratch, a great film about turntablism). So as some kind of antidote to recent underwhelming cinematic efforts by Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, here’s a slew of rockumentary tropes and the finest examples of each…

EPICS

Some rock stories are just too gargantuan to present in a single digestible chunk. Trying to represent the scope and influence of The Beatles in a 45 minute VH1 special would be as unsatisfying as a Budget Lidl Mexican Fiesta Meal Experience. So thank God we all basically surrendered the middle of the 1990s to the Fab Four. The Anthology documentary was 11 hours of remarkable mop top action with Ringo occasionally saying ‘peace and love’ thrown in for good measure. If that wasn’t enough, Martin Scorsese went on to make a further epic about ONE Beatle in particular with his George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Scorsese seems to be trying to corner the market in whopping music docs. As well as his excellent series on The Blues, he even managed to make an exceptional documentary on Dylan – No Direction Home – when it felt like every morsel of the Dylan story had already been told and retold. And good old Peter Bogdanovich felt the same way about Tom Petty. While I’m not exactly sure why his film about TP, Runnin’ Down a Dream, is four hours long, I’m delighted that it is.

INDIE DREAMS GO SOUR

Werner Herzog, a master documentarian in his own right, has always purported that the story is vastly more important than the truth. So while members of The Brian Jonestown Massacre may be upset by their portrayal in the film about their relationship and eventual schism with pals The Dandy Warhols, Dig!, what would you rather see? Something completely real or something entertaining? It shines a light on a flatlining rock and roll dream and painfully reveals that being in band ain’t all luxury buses and blowjobs, especially at the indie end of things. Ditto I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: a Film about Wilco, which highlights the group’s various fuck-ups and breakdowns in trying to make that difficult fourth album. There’s slightly more redemption in The Fearless Freaks, the 2006 documentary about the Flaming Lips which is quite brutal in it’s portrayal of Steven Drozd’s heroin addiction and its effect on his family – though a happy ending is suggested.  Sadly there’s no happy ending in the life of Jay Reatard, an insanely prolific, passionately insane Memphis punk wonder whose brief life is celebrated in Better Than Something.

ROAD MOVIES

Whether you’re The Rolling Stones hauling a small village from city to city to entertain the 2 million people on Copacabana Beach or the world’s lowliest Stones tribute act playing to four people at JB’s in Dudley, life on tour is a disorientating and alienating farrago. Lousy for them, great for us! Two of the finest music docs concern tours, one a victory lap, one mired in tragedy. Don’t Look Back, which covers Dylan’s 1965 jaunt around Britain, is the perfect snapshot of a star in ascent as Bob wows crowds and bugs journalists. Four years later, the Stones toured the States and the world seemed to be a completely different place. Again, directors the Maysles capture it expertly in Gimme Shelter, which portrays a vision of excess and success as rock royalty try to establish ground rules for this new level of adulation and the problems that provokes. It all quickly spirals out of control, culminating in the disastrous free show at Altamont. The Maysles made another great tour movie: The Beatles First US Visit, which shows a frenetic two week trudge around America, with Beatlemania just kicking off and the boys trying to cope. Maybe I’m nuts, but I always felt it had parallels with 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Another energetic two week tour film, featuring Sonic Youth on a summer festival trip with a little known Nirvana just as, like the title suggests, grunge was about to bother the mainstream and every band with a one syllable name was soon signed to a major label.

“Dig!” shines a light on a flatlining rock and roll dream and painfully reveals that being in band ain’t all luxury buses and blowjobs, especially at the indie end of things.

HAIR

I think even the most fervent Heavy Metal fan would agree that there is something faintly ridiculous about the form. And I’m from the Black Country, so feel qualified to comment. There is certainly an element of farce in all the great metal documentaries. The infinitely entertaining The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years features all the comical excesses of hard rock, with band members surrounded by lingerie clad lovelies or downing vodka in swimming pools. Metallica seem desperate to get away from that end of metal with their art collections and group therapy, but still frequently come across like complete buffoons in Some Kind of Monster. Quite a contrast to Anvil, the little band that couldn’t. As with many metal docs, Anvil!: The Story of Anvil veers dangerously towards Spinal Tap on many occasions, then even goes beyond Nigel Tufnell levels of ridiculousness. But perhaps my favourite film concerning the insanity of metal is Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which interviews kids outside a Judas Priest concert in suburbanMaryland in 1986. If you haven’t seen it, see it. Now.

OUT ON THE FRINGES

There’s often a big dose of crazy in creation. For some reason, dedication seems to run alongside medication, especially with those in the rock biz. It makes for incredible music and incredible movies about the incredible music. The Devil and Daniel Johnston, concerns one of my favourite songwriters and the battle to suppress his demons while still allowing his creative spirit to emerge. There’s a similar battle going on in Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Wild Man Fischer. Zappa protégée and LA staple, Fischer needed meds to live a stable life, but the same meds curtailed his ability to create and this juggling act makes for an engrossing, if depressing, movie. More redemptive is You’re Gonna Miss Me, which chronicles 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson’s struggles with schizophrenia after LSD and shock therapy after a 1969 pot bust destroyed him mentally. The film charts his descent into obscurity and the slow road back to recovery. Roky was once room-mates with another Texan legend, Townes Van Zandt, whose songs were covered by Elvis, Dylan and others, but who never quite managed to tip over into the mainstream. Be Here to Love Me charts his exceptional talent and monumental self-destruction.

UNSEEN

For whatever reason, The Rolling Stones love to splurge on cinematic ventures then get cold feet when they see the results. Rock and Roll Circus took decades to see the light. Then there’s Charlie is my Darling and Cocksucker Blues. 1965’s Charlie shows a grafting band still trying to cement their position as something different to the Beatles during a two-week tour of Ireland. By contrast Cocksucker shows them in 1972 indulging in a hedonistic post Exile tour, featuring extensive drug use, groupie abuse and general debauchery. Due to the content and intervention by the band, it can only be screened if director Robert Frank is present in the room. Of course, anywhere the Stones go, the Beatles go too. Incredibly Let it Be, the film of the album of the split, is still unreleased and looks likely to never be DVD’d. Dylan has a similar pedigree when it comes to non-releasing documentaries. The follow up to Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, featuring an infamous scene with John Lennon and Bob strung out in the back of a limo, is still a bootleg only favourite. While the chronicle of his legendary 1975 Rolling Thunder revue, Renaldo and Clara is still on the shelf after being savaged by critics on initial release. It’s curious that someone as influential and instrumental as David Bowie has never had the seminal documentary treatment. 1975’s BBC film Cracked Actor shows Bowie at the height of his powers and pinnacle of coke fuelled insanity but is still stubbornly unavailable. Hopefully the amazing MC5: A True Testimonial will soon be out of litigation and heading to a DVD near you. And mention must be made of The Posters Came From the Walls aka Our Hobby is Depeche Mode, Nick Abrahams and Jeremy Deller’s opus, which barely features the band at all and focuses on the devotion of their fans. With luck a wider release or DVD version will be available soon.

FESTIVALS

If you hate camping, mud, hippies or John Sebastian then the festival film is the ideal alternative. Woodstock is the granddaddy of them all, if bum-numbingly long with even longer versions emerging all the time. Tighter and more consistent is Monterey Pop which features more blistering Hendrix and Who and less babbling longhairs. Wattstax covers the 1973 LA based concert featuring Richard Pryor and… need I go on? It’s got Richard Pryor in it. That should be enough. But there’s also great stuff from The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes. Favourite of mine is Celebration at Big Sur from 1969 and featuring Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and others. Surely the end of the hippy dream can be pinpointed to the moment Stephen Stills attacked a stoned heckling love-child on the stage? Awesome.

PUNKERS

Argh! So many incredible punk documentaries. As well as all the great JulienTempleones about the first wave of punk (The Filth and the Fury, The Future is Unwritten, Oil City Confidential), there’s Don Lett’s great Clash doc Westway to the World and his Super-8 vintage The Punk Rock Movie. The Pistols also crop up in the brilliant DOA, which follows their devastating US tour of 1978 and features The Dead Boys and Generation X. The nascent LA punk scene is chronicled in The Decline of Western Civilization Part 1 which showcases Black Flag, Germs, X, and Fear. In nearby San Raphael, The Minutemen were blazing their own trail until tragedy struck. All is revealed in We Jam Econo – The Story of the Minutemen, which is heartily recommended. On the east coast, The Ramones are endlessly entertaining, as illustrated in End of the Century, the documentary of their career and many fights. One’s life is not complete unless you’ve seen Hated, Todd Phillip’s delve in GG Allin’s toilet of a life. Special mention must be made of American Hardcore, Paul Rachman’s look at American Punk in the early 80s and also Instrument, Jem Cohen’s film about Fugazi, which has a cameo by me in it, so warrants a mention obviously.

BEATS

Like punk, hip hop seems to lend itself perfectly to the documentary form. Maybe it’s the larger than life characters, the violence, the tragedy, the trainers? Style Wars from 1983 mainly looks at graffiti art but has some fascinating glimpses of early hip hop culture. I have to say, I was slightly nervous when I read that actor Michael Rapaport was making a Tribe Called Quest documentary, but his Beats, Rhymes & Life was excellent. At the screening I attended in New York, the loudest cheer of the night came for the man who stood up at the end of the film and screamed ‘That’s why hip hop is shit now!’ Tension, drama and sheer mind-churning madness are all on offer in Rock the Bells, a look at how hard it is to set up hip hop festivals and wrangle the Wu Tang Clan, particularly the late great Ol Dirty Bastard. A happier mass rap event is on display in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Michael Gondry’s film of the Chappelle organised Brooklyn concert featuring Kayne West, The Roots and Mos Def, which has a vein of pure joy running right through it.

Wattstax covers the 1973 LA based concert featuring Richard Pryor and… need I go on? It’s got Richard Pryor in it. That should be enough.

ON STAGE

Concert films often herald the end of something. The Last Waltz not only celebrates the final bow of The Band, but also the end of Van Morrison’s dignity as he chose to embark on a series of ill-informed high kicks. DA Pennbaker had no idea he was about to chronicle the end of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars phase when he filmed him in 1972, but sometimes documentary filmmaking is as much to do with luck as judgement. The Night James Brown Saved Boston features the extraordinary concert in 1968, the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated. In order to prevent rioting and keep the kids off the streets, the decision was made to televise Brown’s concert, producing this remarkable document. Another great Brown performance is seen in The T.A.M.I. Show, which also includes The Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Chuck Berry. Chuck’s 60th birthday is honoured in Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, a live celebration with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Etta James. Though if you can, get the deluxe DVD version with the hour long ‘making of’ where everyone involved basically discusses what a dick Chuck Berry is. And I’m still not sure what makes Stop Making Sense so great. As a band Talking Heads were always visually engaging and Jonathan Demme is obviously a great filmmaker, but there’s still something that makes, what is basically a straightforward concert film, so watchable.

JAZZ

Shit, I forgot about all these incredible jazz documentaries that never seem to get their props. There are two fairly obscure ones which, if you ever manage to catch them, you will never forget. Who could watch 1968’s Mingus and not marvel at the scene where the great man inexplicably fires a shotgun into the ceiling of his ailing music school as casually as if he’s opening a window. Or the moment in 1972’s I Eye Aye – Rahsaan Roland Kirk live in Montreux where he stands at the edge of the stage and starts doling out cocaine to the audience. Fans of the weird should also hunt down the fabulous Sun Ra artefact A Joyful Noise or even the great man’s own cinematic opus Space is the Place. Thelonious Monk – Straight No Chaser does the piano genius justice and features some blistering performances. And if you have a week to kill, then there’s Ken Burns’ Jazz, which has its detractors, but does run the gamut from noodling ragtime to balls out skronk.

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

bob carolgees 7:29 am, 19-Jul-2012

Good piece mate, but to dismiss Anvil: the story of Anvil was a bit if an oiversight. Wwithout doubt, it is streets ahead of any of the above. The Spinal Tap comparrison is complete coincidence and has lines in it that messers Guest/Shearer/McKean would be proud of. Forget that the songs are terrible - the intro alone completely grips the viewer and has you rooting for these old geezers.

jonny carson 12:37 pm, 19-Jul-2012

The Last Waltz, a personal favourite, great music great band.. What was van morrison thinking wearing that purple sparkly number, during a great performance by the way.

Harry Harris 12:50 pm, 19-Jul-2012

My favourite, possibly apocryphal, tale about The Last Waltz is that apparently when Neil Diamond walked off stage he went to Bob Dylan: "Follow that", to which Dylan replied "Whaddaya want me to do? Fall asleep?"

Dave Wats 2:17 pm, 19-Jul-2012

Great list...Typically people miss DiG! but it may be best music doc ever... You can get more info on any of these films on the music documentary site MusicFilmWeb ( http://www.musicfilmweb.com )

Mikie 4:34 pm, 19-Jul-2012

Great article. Peter Tosh- Stepping Razor Red X is a good one.

oregonbird 6:48 pm, 19-Jul-2012

What about Leonard Cohen?

Caspersozza 11:20 pm, 19-Jul-2012

Much more detailed than many efforts but, like you said, you barely scratch the surface here. Too many omissions, too many thoughts so, in brief... That it took the Stones so long to okay 'Rock'n'roll Circus' is not as surprising as the fact that they okayed it all. They are by far the worst band performing in their own film. Good on them for ever letting us see it. Much as I love The Band, 'The Last Waltz' is a hideous, celebrity-packed snoozefest, arguably the most overrated music film ever. Martin Scorcese's questions are even more lame than his filming of the event is static. Wish I had time to write more.

Dave Meehan 12:02 am, 20-Jul-2012

Look out for Hello Quo in cinemas November.Tales of group wanking, Death,Francis Rossi's nose falling apart,Tesco, Jim Davidson, 4 chords not 3, Cross dressing roadies & Cliff Richard aka Jesus on Earth, missing cash & a Nolan sister......What more do you need?

Top Film Tip 8:59 am, 21-Jul-2012

Great article- Anvil: Thr Story Of Anvil is on BBC4 on Friday night, in case anyone wanted a re watch

Bartoli 11:17 am, 18-Dec-2012

Fugazi's Instrument

Oliver 10:24 pm, 18-Dec-2012

Technically the film Let It Be is unlikely to be re-released, not released, as it was briefly released on vhs and laser disc

mattysson 5:46 pm, 26-Dec-2012

No way, this list gets made without "Standing In the Shadows of Motown" at, or near, the top. It's the story of Motown's house band, the Funk Brothers, who played on every one of Motown's hits. Highlights (among many): 1. The repeated tributes to bass player James Jamerson. 2. Chaka Khan doing the thought impossible. Taking Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? and making it her own. 3. Joan Osbourne crushing What Becomes of the Broken Hearted. If you're into Rock docs, "Standing In the Shadow of Motown" is an essential

Blake Carrington 12:58 pm, 19-Nov-2013

I'm with Bartoli here... Fugazi's "Instrument" is a beautifully sparse and honest doc.

Johnny Drama 12:11 pm, 20-Nov-2013

New York Doll, Muscle Schoals, Made of Stone, Prophets of Rage.

Matty Doherty 2:21 pm, 20-Nov-2013

Be Here To Love Me is so good... try a little bit of TVZ... You won't regret it

Nigel castle 8:42 pm, 18-Dec-2013

Rock and Roll's greatest Failure, Otway the Movie, has got to be one of the most entertaining.

Rob Buttery 8:26 am, 20-Jan-2014

Great article - There's also a couple of brilliant Grant Gee docos that look at Radiohead and Joy Division... The Radiohead film is an impressionistic voyage with the band while touring... Really portrays the disconnect from reality that big bands must go through constantly being asked the same questions month after month...

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