Sunday, April 7, 2013

Reviews in Bad Taste: Must-See Music Documentaries (non-metal version)

A great music documentary is a wonderful thing.  Because if you love music enough, you almost can't help but to have some desire to better connect with the people who create it. Call it voyeurism, call it artistic curiosity, call it being a fanboy.  In my case all of them are true.  Ultimately, it boils down to an appreciation for the passion, sacrifice, ego and drama that is associated with all forms of creation.

For years I have been an addict for music documentaries, and I thought it might be worth sharing a few of my favorites.  This list is by no means comprehensive.  Hell, I've forgotten more great music films than I can remember, and I have no doubt that within 20 minutes of hitting the "Publish" button, something obvious will come to mind.

Nonetheless, have a look, and let me know what I've forgotten.

(Note: metal version is to come).

24X5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones
The Stones have released a gold mine's worth of great documentaries in the past 10 years, but this one is my personal favorite. Despite being released around a relatively blah chapter of their musical career, the Stones are captured at a mature and reflective moment in time, seemingly grateful to have their legacy intact after years of infighting.  Highlights include footage of both young and old Mick and Keith writing together, Charlie Watts conducting rare (and extensive) one-on-one interviews, and a massive amount of archival footage that had been unseen by even the biggest fans at the time of release.

David Bowie: Cracked Actor
Up front: there isn't much of a story arc here. And quite frankly, any insights into Bowie's art is completely obscured by the primary appeal of this film: the spectacular thrill of witnessing Bowie coked out of his fucking mind 24/7.  As such, there is a vitally important cautionary tale to this film: although nothing particularly shocking takes place, it does provide proof positive that even the most brilliant individuals turn to total fucking idiots when they do cocaine.

(Corollary: his vocal arrangements at this moment in time happened to be absolutely fantastic and completely inspired. Damn you, cocaine).

The Pixies: Loud Quiet Loud 
The term "indie music" doesn't really mean what it used to (if the term even exists anymore), which is why its so important to recognize the infighting and drama the Pixies slogged through on their way to pioneering the genre.  Shown through the eyes of an older, fatter, more mature band, this surprisingly subtle documentary finds all bandmates seemingly resigned to their legacy.  To that end, this is less a story of overcoming dysfunction as much as it is a story of coping with it; in fact, there are no fights or arguments anywhere in this film, yet the tension is always present in the form of uncomfortable silences, deep sighs and rolled eyes.

Stay tuned til the very last second to see Kim Deal soldier through a truly hysterical and cringe-worthy life-on-the-road moment.

End Of the Century: The Story of the Ramones 
Shot during the short years between the deaths of Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, this film is heartbreakingly charming, funny, sweet and tragic.  Seemingly unappreciative of their status as punk rock icons, the members of the Ramones face the ends of their lives nearly overwhelmed with a sense of own failure to be commercially successful. Moreover, each member of the band is up-front about the unfortunate state of the personal relationships between them, culminating in the revelation of one very closely-guarded (and incredibly sad) band secret.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco
Often slow and occassionaly downright boring, the story of how Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came to be is worth watching less for all of the creative angst and more as a proof point that record companies are staffed by complete idiots.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Despite the well-intentioned (but clumsy) use of a live Funk Brother's concert performance as the unifying thread of the film, this documentary provides an essential reminder that Motown is an absolutely vital part of America's musical and cultural history.  

Documenting that, of course, is the easy part.  Stringing together a compelling film about the house band that made all of that music is a taller order. 

Nonetheless, I promise you that there will not be a dry eye in the house as Bob Babbitt describes being smuggled out of Hitsville USA as race riots ignited Detroit.

Quite simply, this is my favorite music documentary of all time.  And the vision behind it is absolutely mind-blowing.  

Chronicling the early years of "rival" Pacific Northwest bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, DiG! captures the triumphs and the miseries as one band breaks big and another simultaneously implodes.  

Between the fist fights, the melt-downs, the drugs and the emotional abuse, one still has to wonder how filmmaker Ondi Timoner knew that the reels and reels of footage would ever deliver a payoff for either band. 


Some Kind of Monster
Wait?  Didn't I say that metal documentaries will be featured in a future blog post?  

I sure did.  I'm including this one here because, quite frankly, this film has nothing to do with metal.  

It has everything to do, however, with rock stars having mid-life crises.  And that - together with hearing Lars Ulrich shout "FAUUUUUUUUUK" every five minutes - makes it a totally worthwhile watch.

(Truthfully, I'm conflicted about this film because it captures such a powerful band at such a helpless point. Yet, that is precisely what makes it great).

New York Doll
So very much like the Ramones, the story of the New York Dolls has always been one of "could've, should've, didn't."  Yet, with David Johansen's relative success as a solo musician/personality, it is easy to forget how absolutely trampled the rest of the band became after the Dolls broke up.

Oh, everyone knows about the demises of Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan.  And if you scanned TimeOut NY enough over the years, you could always find Syl Sylvain playing the odd, sad gig somewhere on the Lower East Side.

But no one ever thought to look for Arthur Kane.  When director, Greg Whiteley, finally did, he found a timid, middle-aged man living an impoverished life surrendered to God. Sober, but broken; spiritual, but not at peace; Kane comes across as a borderline bitter figure, fixated on the ludicrous fantasy of his old band reuniting.

But we all know that sometimes dreams do come true. 

Another sure-fire tear-jerker for yours' truly.

Your turn.  What did I forget?


about me said...

Tom - just saw Searching for Sugarman, which is fantastic. Check it out if you haven't seen it.

t-o-n said...

Thanks, Scott. I have heard a lot about that one, but haven't gotten around to it yet. Will do, though!

Did you get around to Pentagram yet?