If we’re being honest, a title like “Best Music Documentaries” lumps three absurdities into one list. First there’s the idea of ranking works in a form of human expression as vast and multifarious as “music.” Second, there’s adding film’s own fog of aesthetic criteria to the mix. Third, there’s the idea that “documentary” is still a coherent genre these days.
True, “Rock Doc” is catchier and has a tighter focus, but it still must consider hagiographies, kooky-character studies, group psychodramas and subcultural reportage—and do all of it under the shadow cast by This Is Spinal Tap as both satire of and finest entry in the genre.
So let’s here retask the Fandor term essential, and, with a nod to 1980s French cinema, anoint a new “cinéma du rock.” Not everything in this microgenre prioritizes style and spectacle over narrative and substance, but they get a lot closer to rock’s essence when they do. Few films capture the actual chest-thumping panic of rock, the twitchy, neuron buzz of bebop or ineffable effects of any music that means as much as off-screen as on-, fewer still who take it head-on as their subject. Some films here are masterworks by major artists, some are ballistic promo material, some are happy accidents like those that produced rock’s greatest songs. All should be at least an LP’s worth of viewing time.
AC/DC: Let There Be Rock
In AC/DC, the Screenwriter’s Handbook finds a perfect three-act drama: fiery start, shocking death, impossible resurrection to lasting glory. Look elsewhere for that film. Look here to see hard-rock’s essence on screen. Something that practically never happened again. A professionally shot, recorded and edited concert film with backstage interviews, Let There Be Rock undertook the humble task of covering AC/DC’s show at Pavillon de Paris on December 9, 1979. Guitarist Angus Young is a crazy-wiry twenty-six. Bon Scott is a vital thirty-two with just two months to live. The preeminent masters of hard-rock minimalism, AC/DC opens with “Live Wire” and, without pyrotechnics, stage-effects or much of a pause between songs, delivers one of the rawest, tightest performances of its career, which is to say, of anyone’s, ever.
The Decline of Western Civilization
Shooting December, 1979, to May, 1980, Penelope Spheeris wound up with a slice of L.A. punk so real it caused riots at screenings and won the LAPD’s version of the Oscar: a letter from the desk of Darryl Gates demanding it never play in his town again. An essential look at a legendary underground scene when underground scenes remained so through their lifespans, Decline deploys a more evenhanded version of no-wave style that levels artists and fans even more than the scene’s no-rock-stars ethic. Black Flag comes off as a group of squatters wrecking stolen gear instead of the ferocious recording outfit they were. Darby Crash beguiles more chatting with a girlfrend at home than slurring and flopping onstage with the Germs. Even so, consummate pros X shine on- and off-stage, with elder singers Exene and John Doe a two-faced moral compass for an anti-everything movement, while Fear’s buff shirtless Lee Ving fronts the extremely non-emo band with an air of genuinely uncool white supremacist menace. But of all these outsized figures, L.A.-punk’s scenesters—shot in black-and-white beneath a bare lightbulb— blaze hottest and leave the strongest impression. None more so than a shifty skinhead subtitles ID as “Eugene,” who looks and sounds all of fourteen, and delivers the film’s immortal opener: “That’s stupid: ‘Punk-rock.” I just think of it as rock’n’roll, ‘cause that’s what it is…It’s for real.”
One of the great mixed-messages of modern media, Gordon Parks, Jr.’s blaxploitation Ur-text sent its seductive drug-lord hero rolling through New York’s underworld to the slinky sounds of Curtis Mayfield. The smooth, lushly orchestrated songs and instrumentals of the cynical crime-film soundtrack doubled as a righteous soul concept album on a par with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. A song like “Freddie’s Dead” is, of course, a bomb-ass cut even without the visuals. But as it plays beneath the opening credits, watching Ron O’Neal’s Priest pilot a chrome-grilled, battleship-sized El Dorado up Park Avenue, the track is bigger and badder, and sounds the first note of a dramatic counterpoint that plays through the rest of the film. A surpassingly funky morality play, or best feature-length music video in history.
Behold the hipster version of Woodstock: sooner, smaller, better-dressed, starring acts then on-the-verge. Attendees of 1967’s Monterey Pop were a lot easier on the eye than those at counterculture slogs this film inspired. With an A-list camera team including Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock and Bob Neuwirth, D.A. Pennebaker captures a breezy sense of discovery at this festival, which, along with the inescapable Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, and Country Joe, included Hugh Masekela, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, the Who, and an amazingly powerful vocal performance by L.A.’s Mamas and the Papas. While the Jimi Hendrix set does not give the iconic rendition of our crap national anthem he gives later at Woodstock, he does tear through an exuberantly nasty British Invasion hit, “Wild Thing,” demolishing the Troggs original along with a guitar he tosses into the first crowd onscreen that truly did not see this man coming.
Neither the Zeitgeist term nor the event would effectively exist without this film, whose spectacular coverage of sounds and images depict an event no attendee could have imagined. Least of all, director Michael Wadleigh and his small crew of New York City filmmakers, who packed their gear for an upstate concert that soon revealed they might as well have deplaned in Danang. When a reporter dropped by Wadleigh’s editing loft to see one of the sequences cut he detected an odd note in The Jefferson Airplane’s soundmix: the wracking sobs of a cameraman shooting at dawn on day two. Only a handful of performances—Richie Haven’s midday opener, Sly and the Family Stone’s nocturnal throwdown, Jimi Hendrix’s closing immolation—rival the size, spectacle and all-but-visible smell of the historic crowd, the most Caucasians getting loose in any public space since 1930s Nuremberg. If you just can’t get enough Country Joe and the Fish, help yourself to 1994’s full-concert 225-minute version. But the original split-screen stunner—assembled by then-unknown Martin Scorsese and his future editor Thelma Schoonmaker among others, blending eight-track sound with both 35 and 16 mm celluloid—gives you a more detailed glimpse of this moment than you can assimilate in one viewing.
Dont Look Back
Here you have him: the sly, resentful, unaccountably magnetic punk songwriter, on a campaign for cultural icon, set off by the cuecard-tossing, best-music-video-ever, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” From a distance of from two to ten feet, D.A. Pennebaker follows the Twit Who Would Be Dylan on his 1965 tour of England, cameras rolling as he slowly dumps Joan Baez, redefines “interviewer’s worst nightmare,” shows The Royal Albert Hall a talent it has truly never seen before, and, with Donovan, turns “It’s All Over Now” into the most finely turned act of passive aggression committed to film. Supposedly, this film is about fame’s distorting effect on art, but it’s hard to imagine anyone here walking away from this artist without feeling a little distorted themselves.
Bob Dylan: No Direction Home
With forty years’ more perspective, far more resources and a much cagier and less candid subject than Pennebaker’s, Scorsese’s four-hour Dylan study does little more than explicate the title of Dont Look Back—but does so fully and originally enough to merit reconsideration such an over-considered figure. Drawing from a vault of unseen performance and interview footage from Dylan’s period of greatest flux, 1961-66, No Direction Home adds original (if a bit too authorized) interviews that Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, conducted with his boss and boss’s friends, including two, Allen Ginsberg and Dave Van Ronk, who didn’t live to see the film finished. Dylan’s people also provided recordings of his Minnesota high-school rock band and his Andy Warhol screen test, as well as Pennebaker’s unseen and electrifying color footage of the famous Manchester concert. This is where a fan yells “Judas!” at the frail twenty-five-year-old who then snarls into the distorted, out-of-tune, over-miked, truly-godawful version of “Like A Rolling Stone” that begins this film and makes its central point: this noise, fall-out and violence are things no artist can afford to fear.
All My Loving
Given the date and outlet of its original appearance, this is simply astounding, possibly the most on-point, perceptive, three-dimensional view of the Rock moment at its zenith. Directed by classical-music documentarian Tony Palmer for BBC’s then-new Omnibus series, “All My Loving” reads square, moves fast and hits hard, the director’s panoramic ambitions—to probe the body and soul of sixties pop in just under an hour—drives an unflashy and coherent precursor to what “MTV-style editing.” One scene of imaginative reporting cuts right to the next, framed by Brit v/o staple Patrick Allen’s Dragnet staccato, to either bracing or comic effect. “Dallas, Texas. A jingle writer considers how to sell the Mona Lisa with pop music.” An Albert Brooks-worthy ad-exec muses, “Lasting qualities. Semantics. Communication. Maybe…French horns.” Then “George Martin,” who explicates the methodology of all post-1966 Beatles albums (and pop to come) in thirty-five seconds, signaling the arrival of a solely electronic creation that’s soundtrack to horror footage from Vietnam. More Sturm and Drang from live and soundtrack appearances by the Beatles, Cream, Hendrix, and the Who, whose Pete Townshend, smashing a guitar on Peoria’s small Opera House stage, seems way more raw-dog than he does at Woodstock or Monterey. An elegiac inquiry into a music moment whose disintegration was somehow in sight.
To be viewed still wearing the wristband from a recent Live Nation arena show where half of your $100 ticket went to venue insurance and security. Shot in the strictly observational, reactive school of Direct Cinema documentary, the Maysles brothers’ colossus stands across a stylistic chasm from Godard’s 1 + 1, of ostensibly the same subject and time, and also known as Sympathy for the Devil. There’s no need to pick sides, but consider the two impulses at work. Siting in the room where vocal lines and guitar riffs are assembling the Gotterdammung of the 1960s, where does New Wave’s provocateur place his lens? One a minutes-long static shot of the back of Brian Jones’ static head. Minus Jones, the Maysles Brothers meet the same group at the Madison Square Garden show captured on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, tag along on Muscle Shoals sessions for “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” and keep their reactive cameras rolling through the hustling, scheming, and bad vibes right though the carnage at the Altamont Speedway. This is Woodstock on day six, shot from the perspective of a stage, where both soundbites and images are immortal. (Personal fave: Latercomer Jerry Garcia bounding smiling into the frame to get buttonholed for a whispered update, pronouncing a quick: “Oh bummer!”) Yes: Hell Angels do stab a young black man to death on camera during the Stones performance of “Under My Thumb,” but the coverage is Zapruder-shaky and less indelible than the tableaux that surround it. A row of afternoon-sun-lit Harley-Davidsons leaned right against the concert stage beside amps, groupies and mike stands. A scrum of fur-coated, shaggy-haired freaks, visibly wasted in the setting sun. The same people a few hours later, terror on their faces, in the small circle picked up by stage lights, before a massive moving darkness that looks like a moshpit of some 300,000 people. They wanted rock, they got rocked. This was always part of the deal.
Some Kind of Monster
Titled aptly for apparent spawn of This Is Spinal Tap and Raging Bull, the definitive metal psychodrama arrived through a triple homicide and dumb luck. First, Metallica broke its long-standing policy against loaning out its music to provide the soundtrack for 1994’s doc Paradise Lost, about the accused teenage murderers called “the West Memphis Three.” Then the band’s members liked the film much they granted the directors use of their lives. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky signed on to shoot a simple procedural of metal’s Übermenschen recording their eighth album. When one, singer-songwriter James Hetfield, disintegrated and left for a months-long rehab stay, the existential threat sent drama levels well into the red—turning Monster into a sad, hilarious, inspiring tale of one Hessian’s reconstruction.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
How drastically do we alter a story by simply swapping its main character? Watch this amazing film and learn the truth. In George Harrison, we have the Scorsese character archetype: working-class origins, Catholic upbringing, immense talent, dazzling achievements, and a lifelong struggle between the carnal and the divine. This subject draws from Scorsese’s core obsessions in ways the subject of his previous rock doc, Bob Dylan, couldn’t, and the trove of new material let him build a story of terror, grief, sin and transcendence that feels almost like an auteur career survey. More strikingly, the choice of “the quiet one” as narrative filter takes personalities, events and moments that are as well known as the New Testament and delivers a strikingly different Gospel According to George. And once the Beatles break up, the fun really begins.
Chaotically scripted and shot in 1980 by a Downtown scenester Charlie Ahearn and Uptown boulevardier Fab Five Freddy, this tale of a teenage Bronx graffiti artist premiered at a dingy Times Square theater in 1983 and quickly joined the three or four scrolls bearing U.S. subculture in the pre-Internet Dark Ages. Ahearn’s film made its strongest impact via a proto-long tail of campus cinemas, VHS tapes and OST albums, where performances by Grandmaster Flash, Cold Crush Brothers and the Rock Steady Crew wrote hip-hop’s Old Testament while its history was still unfolding. This thirtieth-anniversary DVD’s hour of bonus features adds little of substance to Rhino’s twenty-fifth anniversary release, but key sequences in its HD-transferred 16mm feature now gloriously capture the kind of unruly life that reclaimed subway cars and the walls of housing projects from a Reagan-era wasteland.
Based on a book by cult Belgian author Herman Brusselmans, Koen Mortier’s feature debut pits Flanders’ world of haute-bourgeois letters against its lowest social rung: a rock band whose psycho skinhead, deaf junkie and besotted semi-gay manchild are each one a Ramones song come to life, who attack strangers, beat wives and form a band called, naturally, the Feminists. When they begin jamming to what is effectively their theme song, Devo’s “Mongoloid,” the Feminists reveal themselves to be geniuses of the genre (thanks to songs contributed by Belgium’s top-notch thrash-metal band, Millionaire). That genre, while never explicitly referenced, is clearly punk rock and one of this film’s greatest strengths is its rendering of punk’s style, sound and seedy milieu, showing in explicit detail how lost souls might redeem themselves in one explosive half-hour in the spotlight.
Beware of Mr. Baker
Of such huge talent, appetites and bloody-mindedness that no one or continent can hold him, drum giant Ginger Baker appears in this film’s shaky opening clip brandishing a cane at a car window, one of many sticks he reinvents by breaking the nose of the film’s director. Post-punk and green enough to seek out the guy himself, novice film-maker Jay Bulger also skirts the standard fixtures of rock hagiography. His straightforward story (marred by ill-advised Middle Passage animation) follows a life of global zig-zags ouf of a David Lean film: London hoodlum, teen jazz drummer, junkie, member of superlative rock trio Cream, acid casualty, Brit-gone-native member of African powerhouse Fela’s band, and—why not?—polo enthusiast. One of rock’s very few lives with an unexpected twist in every chapter.
Searching for Sugar Man
Behold the rock bio as speculative fiction. Imagine a land where a mellow-rock album by an unknown Michigan songwriter becomes a cultural touchstone on a par with Abbey Road. All this fantasy needs to become fact is Apartheid-era South Africa, which actually did produce a legend Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul (who will take his own life two short years after the documentary was completed) works hard to enhance with a somewhat jury-rigged in-search-of narrative, in which South Africa fascinates more than his ostensible subject, Sixto Rodriguez. In 1972, Rodriguez released an album called Cold Fact that somehow lodged its way into the dens and minds of South Africa’s white middleclass. Both Sixto’s legendary status and obscurity are products of a machine we see in chilling glimpses, like a scene in the old government’s Archive of Censored Material, where an LP of Cold Fact has been stamped “AVOID” and its gently salacious first track “I Wonder” has been scratched out with a nail.
The Filth and the Fury
Twenty years after his rock-doc gag The Great Rock and Roll Swindle presented them as mere puppets of Malcolm McLaren’s fecund imagination, Julian Temple delivered this artful apologia to the surviving members of the Sex Pistols, who, shot in silhouette, tell their story themselves as their ex-manager’s quotes come from the unzipped mouthslit of a bondage-masked stand-in. For such a stylish director, Temple provides solid groundwork for the sociopolitical world that produced the world’s angriest band, splicing archival footage of street clashes and sappy TV shows with striking clips of seminal images like Olivier’s Richard III, suggesting both the raw material used by the band and the legacy to which they are heirs.
The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years
Eight years, millions of dollars, ten kilos of coke, and several cubic-feet of hair mousse stand between Penelope Spheeris’ first L.A. music doc and this one on heavy-metal’s trembling giants and mascara-ed hopefuls. Packed with scenes that remain fodder for much of Hollywood’s comedy machine, Spheeris’ film still stands, like Mötorhead’s Lemmy, above the fray of countless imitators, rarely content to shoot fish that are so plentiful in this barrel. This inquiry feels tuned to the genuine excitement in the music and is unflinching about its truly unfunny casualties, like W.A.S.P. singer Chris Holmes, who’s watched poolside by his mom as he floats on a raft and pours vodka down his throat, heading toward a Sunset Boulevard exit scene.
Q: Can a thrown-together story consisting of the London meanderings and sub-Ulysses stream-of-consciousness of a lager-tanked loser make incendiary film? A: Yes, when the remaining forty percent is a set of live performances by the Clash, captured at the absolute peak of that band’s history. Of the other Clash films worth your time, Don Letts’ 2000 The Clash: Westway to the World adds crucial New York City footage but is both more conventional and more skewed in its band history. Julien Temple’s 2007 Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is all fine and half-magnificent, but the other half begins with the break-up of the Clash. Shooting in street-doc mode from 1978-to-early 1979, directors Jack Hazan and David Mingay followed non-actor Ray Gange on an improvised character arc from Soho sex-shop worker to Clash roadie, using events like the Victoria Park “Rock Against Racism” protest concert the way Medium Cool used the riots at Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention. Up close, we see the Clash perform “White Riot” at the Open Air Carnival, do “I’m So Bored with the USA” at Glasgow’s Apollo and “I Fought the Law” at the West End’s Lyceum Theater. Not for nothing, this is also just about the coolest looking rock band that ever walked the Earth.
D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage
If you’ve had your fill of the Sex Pistols by the time you get to Lech Kowalski’s debut film, it’s still essential viewing. It fills in some gaps—like women, say, who at least get stellar reps in X-Ray Specs—and connects dots between Iggy Pop, the Ramones and the London scene that made punk-rock go global. Kowalski brought his 16 mm camera along on the 1978 Sex Pistols tour of the U.S. that ended with their dissolution, capturing moments of filth, fury and redneck harassment, and Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen’s hideous/magnificent update of the John and Yoko bed-in interview. We spend time with the Dead Boys, the Rich Kids, the Clash and other first-wave punks, including the smooth-cheeked pretty-boy singer of a group whose real name you can’t quite believe was Generation X, any more than you can believe he’s Billy Idol.
A better heeled and more urbane contemporary to the Uptown explosion Wild Style, this film paints the same scene in the cooler, moodier hues you expect of a Swiss-born Conservatoire Libre du Cinema grad. The film slated and shot in 1980 as New York Beat Movie, and released under this title twenty years later, stemmed from the chance meeting of Vogue photographer Edo Bertoglio, rock-scenester Glenn O’Brien and Jean-Michael Basquiat, the first two of which cast the last as lead in one more hastily-riffed, scene-trotting picaresque that here plays two essential roles: capturing no-wave-era gems like DNA, Suicide and James White and the Blacks in the milieu, and brings us up close and personal with a singular artist of the late-twentieth-century when he’s a twenty-one-year-old scenester and musician, just starting to try painting on canvas.
The Harder They Come
Midnight-movie staple, ultimate soundtrack, solid post-colonial ethnography, Perry Henzell’s crime drama put a Jamaican pop star into a blaxploitation boilerplate, a film genre that made the music’s star go viral across the globe. Even today, Harder They Come is nearly as watchable as its title song’s a joy to hear. No worse a movie star than Tupac, Cliff gives reluctant outlaw Ivanhoe enough soul and hunger to sustain at least two-thirds of the screenplay, after which his music and Kingston street life carry you along to the pro-forma Spaghetti-western shootout, which somehow feels epic.
For all its words and personalities, hip-hop really doesn’t have that many stories: rags-to-riches, narco emperor, police brutality, youth at risk. Nearly every rapper major and minor has starred in a marquee or straight-to-DVD variation on Scarface, and none but Marshall Mathers have starred in a film based on both his life and actual hip-hop. If only one had, just to give the mantle to someone besides rap’s great white hope. But when, as B-Rabbit, the rangy, hollow-eyed Eminem stands bobbing and prepping for freestyle battle in a dingy club toilet, Mobb Deep’s “The Shook Ones Part II” in his headphones, 8 Mile locks into a reality it rides all the way to a Rocky-worthy climax scored by the undeniable banger “Lose Yourself.” Purple Rain is this film’s closest analog, but as electrifying as the real-life star is in his performing scenes, he’s shrouded in melodrama or lavender mist when he’s offstage. As written by Scott Silver and directed by Curtis Hanson, we believe in B-Rabbit—because Eminem’s solid in the role, and because we believe Eminem believes in hip-hop.
Rock’n’Roll High School
Until minute thirty-seven, there’s little to distinguish this fairly lame high school comedy from others of the era. But with the cut to the license plate “Gabba-Gabba-Hey” and the start of “I Just Wanna Have Something To Do,” B-list director Allan Arkush’s film begins a riveting conversation with the preceding twenty years of rock on film. Before the Ramones show up, the presence of Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov are enough to signal a High Camp tone, but once they do, their music and the sheer visual fact their members change everything. The Ramones’ looks, style and utter inability to deliver a single line of dialogue all clash so hard with the rest of the movie there’s a jaw-dropping fascination to every scene they’re in. Even non-fans must respect the Bye Bye Birdy sightgag of teensploitation staple P.J. Soles swooning over a dreamy pop idol personified by the six-six sui generis physical specimen of the late, great Joey Ramone.
If you seek in Todd Haynes’ film a true rendition of the English glam-rock era, note 2007’s Dylan film I’m Not There, in which Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and four other stars play people not named Bob Dylan, whose name gets one mention in an opening caption, and whose actual music appears once in the film. By contrast, Velvet Goldmine is an utterly faithful (if mediated) rhapsody on the look, sound and gender-liberating spirit of England’s early-seventies pre-punk movement, whose tunes by Brian Eno, Roxy Music and T-Rex are melded with startlingly authentic homages written and recorded for the film by modern alternative-rock groups. Using a Citizen Kane narrative, Haynes borrows some looks and bio details from Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop to create the glam icons he casts as heirs to fin de siècle Decadents. Ewan McGregor’s fearless trou-dropping, willy-shaking performance onstage as the Iggy-esque character Kurt Vile is stunning even for someone who hit the world stage fleeing Edinburgh cops to “Lust For Life.”
Music Is the Weapon
No one film can do justice to a colossus like Fela Anikulapo Kuti, an Africa superstar without equivalent elsewhere in the world, whose simultaneous revolutions in musical, cultural, political and conjugal spheres would each likely merit their own documentary. But these fifty-three minutes shot in Lagos, Nigeria in 1982, probably give you the most essential Fela while wasting the least time. Beautiful color footage of Lagos’ streets, candid interviews of the mischievous Fela relaxed on his home turf and staggering full-band performances of songs like “ITT” and “Army Arrangement” onstage at The Shrine—after which few Fela novices will hear today’s music the same way.