What’s not to like about rockumentaries? Well, for one thing, they often lack dramatic tension. Or, if there’s dramatic tension somewhere in the story, we know about it already because it’s the stuff of legend.
Straightforward biographies can be cool if you don’t know the story, or if the associated images bring to life what you’ve heard or read about. There are those rare cases, however, when filmmakers get lucky, and a new story unfolds before their eyes. “Rockumentary gold!”
Here’s an annotated list of some of the rockumentaries I’ve seen. Additional recommendations?
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart You don’t even have to like Wilco to enjoy this plot-heavy documentary, the timing of which happened to coincide with (1) the band’s being dropped by Reprise Records only to sell Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to another Warner subsidiary (Nonesuch), and (2) the estrangement of Jay Bennett, creative force behind Being There and Summerteeth, who had apparently outlived his usefulness. A documentary about Wilco at any other point in its career would be informative, I’m sure, but not the essential rock-and-roll snapshot that this film turned out to be.
DiG! I don’t know what’s up with the weird capitalization in the film’s title, but DiG! is a riveting chronicle of an independent band’s modest commercial breakthrough on the one hand and an epic meltdown on the other. Come to think of it, that could could describe the Wilco movie as well. In this case, The Dandy Warhols stand in for Wilco and Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre plays Jay Bennett. OK, it’s not a perfect analog, but the results are the same: an insider’s look at some real-life rock-and-roll weirdness.
Don’t Look Back Maybe this one should be on top of the list, but I find it hard to watch because Dylan and Bob Neuwirth are so unkind to Donovan, Joan Baez, and others. On the flip side, I love the concert footage, the Albert Grossman wheeling-and-dealing, and plenty of other things. Not to mention, this is a rare glimpse of Dylan operating as a young man: backstage, in limos, and in hotels.
Searching for Sugar Man This recent-vintage film needs no introduction, since it won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2012. I will note, however, that it has a mystery at its heart, and that the mystery involves a good, old-fashioned eccentric. What more do you need?
Great But More Straightforward
History of The Eagles Like many of you, I have mixed feelings about The Eagles. But mixed feelings won’t detract from anyone’s enjoyment of this two-part film (part 1 = origin story, part 2 = reunion). In addition to the Eagles story, you get a look at the music business during one of its growth spurts. And, Frey and Henley tell what sounds like the unvarnished truth about their experiences with Bernie Leadon and Don Felder. Only one question is left unanswered: why did Henley straighten his hair?
Being Mr. Baker Everyone knows about Ginger Baker – he was, after all, in Cream – but I know I speak for many of you when I say we didn’t really know him. The first scene, in which he punches a documentarian in the face, tells the story. I also love the part where he says he’s better than John Bonham and Keith Moon because they couldn’t swing. Say what?!?
2o Feet From Stardom A behind-the-scenes look at backup singers, who spend their lives behind the scenes.
Marley Here’s one where I knew pretty much the whole story but was glad to see it told with pictures. And, the part about the experimental cancer treatments in Europe was new to me. I wonder what Bob made of the snowy landscapes in the Free State of Bavaria…
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage This is classic biography, but – in this case – I didn’t know that much about the subject. The early footage works, in part because Geddy Lee has such a “unique look.”
End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones Another classic biography that lacks the dramatic tension of Break Your Heart and DiG! Still, an entertaining ride and a great source of information and anecdotes.
The Filth and the Fury I view this as a companion piece to Johnny Rotten’s book, “Rotten.” Same story, told differently but not much differently since Rotten is an oral history.
For Serious Fans
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me I saw this one at the Roxie in SF, which was cool but didn’t totally make up for a limited-footage problem. There wasn’t much video of the band, for example, and they kept showing the same snapshots over and over again, no matter where they were in the story. Although, they were great snapshots, and it’s a great story…
We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen Did you read “Our Band Could Be Your Life” cover to cover in one day? If so, you might as well avoid the lines at NetFlix and purchase a copy of this one. The movie’s lo fi like the band, but it’s irresistable — just like the band. Plenty of live footage, a realistic take on the D. Boon story, not to mention an extended interview with Mike Watt as he drives around Pedro.
Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt Townes is one of the all-time great songwriters and songwriting characters. In addition to writing some of the best songs ever written (“Poncho and Lefty,” “If I Needed You,” “To Live Is To Fly”), his life was one big anecdote. Aficionados will already know most of what’s in this film – and they will have seen some of the best footage, including the unforgettable scene with a man breaking down while Townes plays “Waitin’ Around To Die,” in an earlier film (“Heartworn Highways”) – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t see this one too.
Muscle Shoals Like 20 Feet From Stardom, this film tells the story of a group of musicians you might never have heard of but have definitely heard, since they’re on so many of the “records” in your collection.
Good But Not Among My Favorites
Anvil!: The Story of Anvil This almost made it into “Gripping Entertainments,” but it’s more entertaining than gripping. You have to admire the Anvil singer, who won’t give up on his dream, although you also have to cringe from time to time. And, of course, this story has a happy ending: Anvil! has a career now because of the movie.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston Another fascinating story that could easily rank higher on someone else’s list but for whatever reason doesn’t rank with my all-time favorites.
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten Great rock character who hasn’t been done justice on screen or in print (“Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer”).
The Clash: Westway To The World Gets you up to speed on the basics but then we know the basics, right? Primary-source interviews are great, but there’s not much in the way of new insight here.
LoudQUIETLoud: A Film About The Pixies I don’t regret those two hours, but this film about the Pixies first reunion tour felt a little pointless. Interesting as a “where are they now” document but in no way essential.
The Fearless Freaks Not-bad doc about The Flaming Lips
The Last Waltz A classic, obviously, and not just because you get to see Neil Young walk out on stage with a generous dollop of cocaine hanging out of his nose. The Band was about as musical and soulful as any band has ever been, and this concert happened before it started to go south – in particular, Robbie Robertson’s snake-oiling the rest of the group out of their long-term stakes and Richard Manuel’s suicide.
Stop Making Sense Another classic, and my personal claim to fame, since I attended one of the Pantages shows when I was in the 8th grade.
The Kids Are Alright A primer on how to smash a guitar, among other things.
The Decline of Western Civilization This film was infamous among LA middle schoolers in the early 80s – the ultimate manifestation of mysterious, scary punk-rock awesomeness. People would ask, “Have you seen The Decline?” and you’d nod wisely even though your video store didn’t stock it in BetaMax.
Couldn’t Get Into It
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Guided By Voices: Watch Me Jumpstart
Want To See
The Wrecking Crew
X: The Unheard Music
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down A Dream
New York Doll