With the arrival at redbox this week of the excellent hip-hop documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, I thought I’d take a look at some of my favorite rock music “career retrospective” documentaries.
Just to clarify the term and keep the list at a manageable length, I’m talking about music docs that try to give the viewer a fuller picture of a performer or group’s musical career. That rules out concert films that capture a specific performance (so no Stop Making Sense or The Last Waltz), and it rules out some tremendous music docs that focus on a year in the life of an artist, over the course of a tour or making a single album. (So sorry, as good as they are, no Don’t Look Back, Gimme Shelter, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, or Some Kind of Monster.)
And as always, this list of my personal favorite “music career” documentaries closely hues to my own musical tastes (that is, “rockumentaries”). Your results may vary.
My Top Ten Rock “Career” Documentaries
Actor, director, and ginormous Tribe fan Michael Rapaport (Boston Public, Deep Blue Sea) does a doubly terrific job here, both of chronicling the importance of the influential ’90s hip-hop group and making their music and energy accessible to non-hip-hop fans. You don’t have to be a fan of the Queens, New York, group or even their genre of music to appreciate and get swept away by both their music and the (usual) interpersonal issues that both fueled their success and festered their breakup. At the heart of Rapaport’s compelling film is the fascinating friendship that eventually turned bitter between the cocky and charming Q-Tip and the earnest and diabetic Phife Dawg, which means the film boils down to a portrait not of the music business, but of familiar human relationships.
Some music documentaries tell of superstars’ rise to fame and fortune, but my favorites are about the little guys. I’m a huge Flaming Lips fan, and this 2005 documentary perfectly captures the Oklahoma City band’s quirky, psychedelic earnestness–as personified by leader Wayne Coyne. This isn’t a tale of limos and groupies, but of (now) middle-aged, middle-class guys still just doin’ their weird and wonderful thing. And while there are struggles with some members’ drug addictions (and the band’s epic sci-fi movie Christmas on Mars), at the center is Coyne’s refreshingly down-to-earth honesty and wry humor and the Lips’ endlessly inventive and oddly hopeful music.
This touching look at influential singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson (“Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Without You,” “Coconut”) is a heartbreaker as it follows Nilsson’s ferocious talent through the ’70s, through his carousing friendship with John Lennon, and eventually into the health and creativity problems caused by his drinking. Toward the film’s close a friend recalls Nilsson sitting in a car with him near the end of Nilsson’s life. Harry spent hours playing him cassette tapes of his songs, then finally turned to the friend and said, “There it is, that’s my life’s work.” As I said, heartbreaking.
Though they once headlined music fests alongside Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, and The Scorpions, you probably don’t know the ’80s Canadian metal band Anvil, but that’s the point. This wonderful documentary follows the members today as they move through their oh-so-ordinary lives, never having fully let go of their musical dreams. If that sounds depressing, it’s anything but. While Spinal Tap echoes abound, ultimately Anvil! is not out to mock–instead, it’s an uplifting comeback triumph of the little guys, the ones who never give up.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
I admit I’m often drawn to music documentaries that paint portraits of talent wasted, ways lost, and creative souls chewed up and spit out, either by the industry or their own demons. In the case of talented Austin singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, it wasn’t booze or drugs that pulled him off the path, but bipolar manic depression and schizophrenia. A fascinating, touching film that’s as much about the struggles of mental illness as it is the magic of creative genius.
Dig!‘s entertainment appeal hinges on the hipster-epic (and often hilarious) battle of personalities between The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe and The Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor. But what makes the documentary more than just a sideshow is how nicely it portrays the ’90s music scene as the post-Nirvana indie-’splosion saw record labels throwing tons of contracts and cash at every small alternative band around. Again, you don’t have to know or care about the Dandys’ or the BJM’s music, but if you’ve ever been around small bands struggling to make it, you’ll recognize the characters and the conflicts.
- Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten — I came to punk rock late (I waited ’til it was safe), but The Clash and Strummer quickly leapt to the top of my all-time favorite bands list.
- New York Doll — Another touching (and actually sweet) tale of rise and fall and redemption, this time focusing on Arthur “Killer” Kane of The New York Dolls.
- End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones – How the youthful power of rock brought together very diverse–and battling–personalities, how they grow old together (and at each others’ throats), and how that energy changed music.
- The Sex Pistols: The Filth and the Fury — From director Julien Temple (who also did The Future is Unwritten as well as the seminal Pistols debacle The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle), this is a look at why, despite the circus of self-destruction, the Pistols–and punk rock–mattered so much.
The latest trend in music documentaries is for renowned filmmakers to create several-hour-long career retrospectives. (See Scorsese below or Cameron Crowe’s recent tribute Pearl Jam Twenty.) This time it’s Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) tackling the surprisingly long and event-filled life of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The second half covering the ’90s and ’00s is–as to be expected from rockers now in their middle age–less captivating. But the first couple hours dealing with the band’s music-industry battles in the ’70s and ’80s is riveting. Not to mention musically thrilling.
Perhaps the granddaddy of all rock ‘n’ roll “career” films, Kids collects some interviews but mostly showcases a variety of incendiary performances. It spends little time on personal histories–instead the emphasis is simply on how ungodly good The Who were live. For years this was the only place to find their Rock and Roll Circus version of “A Quick One While He’s Away”–perhaps the single greatest live rock performance ever, it was so good that a humbled and embarrassed Jagger and the Stones shelved the entire Rock and Roll Circus TV show for decades. The Who had simply blown them off the stage. That same explosive live power drives the entire film.
D.A. Pennebaker’s 1966 Don’t Look Back–a chronicle of Bob Dylan’s ’65 tour of England–remains the definitive Dylan documentary (as well as one of the best music docs of all time). But Martin Scorsese gives it a good run for the title. Scorsese only focuses on Dylan’s musically formative years from 1961 to 1966, but places the singer-songwriter in the context of his times and the changing American culture, showing how his growing musical genius fed and fed off of the excitement and energy of the times. (Scorsese also just gave George Harrison the same treatment in the brand new doc George Harrison: Living in the Material World.)
You really can’t do a musical rockumentary list without mentioning the two most important bands in rock and roll: The Beatles and the Stones. Both have had dozens of documentaries made about them, but their “career” documentaries tend to feel more like textbooks than living, breathing films on their own. Still, for fans of either or (like me) both bands, these are essential viewing.
At over 11 hours, this is more of a miniseries than a film, and as you can imagine at that length, it’s dauntingly comprehensive and more than a little overwhelming. It’s also an “officially” sanctioned, authorized project, so while there’s conflict, the wartier bits are left out. Still, it’s The Beatles and it’s nearly 12 hours of information and amazing performances.
I love The Beatles, but deep in my heart I’ve always been a Stones man. In fact, from high school through college I was a Stones fanatic. (If I were 20 years younger, I’d show you my Mick Jagger dance impersonation.) This is yet another “authorized” doc, so again it’s cleaned up–like the living Beatles, Jagger and the Stones are maniacal about controlling their legacy’s image. But like Anthology, there’s plenty of great stuff here for fans like me, including interviews and performances. Of course it was made in 1989, on the band’s 25th anniversary. If updated today it’d be much closer to 50 x 5.