Top 10 music documentaries
Glen's weekly Music in the Movies column picks out his choice of the 10 finest documentaries about musicians...
I’m a huge fan of music documentaries and have watched a fair few over the years. Even when they’re not that great, they at least have some moments of interest. Anyway, I’m not going to waffle on too much in this introduction as this latest installment of Music In The Movies is already considerably longer than I originally intended.
Below are my 10 favourite music documentaries:
Fugazi – Instrument
Perhaps one for fans of Fugazi only, this two hour documentary, charting 10 years of Fugazi’s career, can be a difficult watch at times but features some amazing scenes of the band performing live as well as insights on the band’s business ethos and political views.
Shot entirely on Super 8 and 16mm cameras, the feature does suffer from poor sound quality throughout, but the sheer energy of the performances still makes for captivating viewing.
One scene that particularly sticks with me is of the band performing in a school gymnasium and Guy Picciotto hoisting himself up on to the basketball ring and performing the majority of the song hanging upside down.
Pavement – Slow Century
This is a great collection. One disc features an interesting documentary on the great band, directed by Lance Bangs, from their early gigs in 1989 through to their final show. The other disc is a collection of all their music videos, some of which are excellent, particularly the offerings from Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze.
The documentary shows the band in a good light and they seem to be an affable bunch that don’t take themselves too seriously. The impression you get at the end of the documentary is that the final show would be the end of the band. However, they are reforming for a series of shows this year and I’ll be in attendance at one of the London dates.
Minutemen – We Jam Econo
The Minutemen were a great band and if you haven’t heard any of their stuff I would highly recommend you seek them out. Their song, Corona, is perhaps best known for being the theme from Jackass, but their back catalogue includes a great deal of amazing material.
This documentary shows the story of the The Minutemen through the eyes of their surviving members and a number of talking heads that were close to the band or influenced by them. The documentary shows the incredible drive and focus the band had and the efforts they went through to get their music heard, but ends in tragedy with the death of their singer and guitarist D.Boon.
The Minutemen were part of the SST generation that produced some of the most influential alternative music of the 80s. The DVD also includes a host of great extras including footage from three gigs. If you’re at all interested in this, it’s worth picking up a copy of Michael Azerrad’s fantastic book Our Band Could Be Your Life.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols – Dig!
Ondi Timoner’s 1994 documentary follows The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols over seven years. Lead by front man Anton Newcombe, The Brian Jonestown Massacre set out to take the music industry by storm, with their friends The Dandy Warhols accompanying them.
Early on, it seems that The Brian Jonestown Massacre are the most likely to achieve success, but things fall apart as Newcombe is reluctant to adhere to what is expected of him. The Dandy Warhols go on to sign a major label deal and release a number of very successful albums, after a slow start. This, combined with Newcombe’s increasingly erratic behaviour, causes the bands, who were once good friends, to grow apart.
Despite all of this, Newcombe has released a number of albums with the Brian Jonestown Massacre, some of which are truly fantastic. Newcombe, reportedly dislikes his portrayal in this documentary and feels that the bias is on the Warhols. Personally, I saw the Brian Jonestown Massacre a few years ago and Newcombe was very confrontational with members of the crowd between songs. Whether a bias exists is open to interpretation. The fact remains that this is an excellent watch.
The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter
“…You might recognize this song as preformed by Jefferson Airplane in a little rockumentary about the Rolling Stones in their nightmare at Altamont. That night the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels had their way. Tonight… it’s my turn!”
Sorry, couldn’t resist putting this quote from The Cable Guy in here. Appropriate in the way that it references the event that is the basis for this documentary, but kind of inappropriate using a quote from a comedy given the tragedy that occurred at the event in question.
The documentary follows the Rolling Stones in the run up to them performing a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, in the summer of 1969 to approximately 300,000 people. Altamont wasn’t the venue originally intended for the event and the change in facilities lead to the decision of having members of the Hells Angels providing security for the event (the exact nature of the agreement is disputed).
The documentary effectively captures a sense of tension and claustrophobia by having cameramen in the crowd (George Lucas being one of them). Violence breaks out in the crowd and results in attacks on members of numerous bands on the bill, including Jagger being punched in the face.
The Hells Angels are seen using pool cues as a form of crowd control. And a few songs into the Stones’ set, 18-year-old Meredith Hunter is stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels. It’s an incredibly well made and effective documentary, but it’s far from an easy watch.
The Band – The Last Waltz
Widely regarded as the finest concert film of all time, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz documents the final concert of The Band in 1976, at the venue where they played their very first show 16 years earlier.
To make the concert a farewell to remember, The Band called in a few of their friends to perform with them. The list of guest performers is very impressive including the likes of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters and Joni Mitchell, to name but a few.
The concert footage is accompanied by interviews with members of The Band as they provide an interesting insight into their career. The concert footage is masterfully shot and I enjoyed this immensely despite being unfamiliar with The Band.
Metallica – Some Kind Of Monster
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky spent three years making this documentary and were granted astonishing access to the band in what proved to be a difficult time in their long career. The documentary is more about the relationships between the members of the band, as opposed to the recording of their (at the time) new album.
What the filmmakers were faced with was a band in turmoil. Unable to connect personally or creatively, the band enters group therapy to resolve their numerous issues.
I don’t mind Metallica and listened to a great deal of their material as a teen, but wouldn’t call myself a huge fan. This proved to be a fascinating watch though and certainly one that I enjoyed more than a number of documentaries made about some of my favourite bands.
The Devil And Daniel Johnston
This is one that I’d recommend to anyone, not just fans of Johnston’s. Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2006 documentary charts the career of the talented singer songwriter and artist who suffers from manic depression. The film doesn’t feature any footage of Johnston talking to the camera. Instead it focuses on those who have been close to him at various points throughout his life, including his family, friends, manager, ex-girlfriend and members of Sonic Youth, to name but a few.
I’ve been lucky enough to see Daniel Johnston perform twice and, whilst I wouldn’t say that he’s the most engaging live performer I’ve seen, it’s clear that he’s a great songwriter.
Anvil: The Story Of Anvil
This is quite simply an incredible documentary. This follows the fortunes (or lack thereof) of Anvil, a Canadian metal band that have been together for over 30 years. Anvil were founded by Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner (not that one!) in the 80s and influenced a number of bands that have achieved high levels of success over the years.
Despite being influential and showing great promise in the early stages of their career, for some reason Anvil never reached the heights of some of the bands that they influenced.
Now in their 50s, the film follows the band as they embark on a tour and their efforts to record their 13th album and seek out a major label to back it. Given the subject matter and the nature of the relationships between band members, a comparison to Spinal Tap is inevitable. Purely comparing it to the aforementioned movie would be selling this wonderful documentary short.
The level of love filmmaker Sacha Gervasi has for the band is clear throughout. Funny, lovingly made, and at times incredibly sad, even if you’re not a huge fan of metal or Anvil themselves (I hadn’t heard of them prior to this being released), I would say that this is essential viewing.
I only got round to watching this recently, but watched it twice in 24 hours and can see myself watching it many more times in years to come.
The Flaming Lips – The Fearless Freaks
This documents the band in its various forms for over 20 years, from the point where they were starting out and barely able to afford to feed themselves, to the successful and revered act that they are today.
One thing that struck me was just how well Wayne Coyne comes across here, one of the most likeable and down to earth subjects of a documentary I think that I’ve seen. It’s great to see that, despite the successes he has achieved, he still appears to live near where he grew up and seems to have the same level of enthusiasm that he did when the band first started.
There are dark moments in the documentary, in particular one scene that is seen as being controversial and, no doubt, led to it being an 18-rated feature. The scene is of drummer Steve Drozd preparing a dose of heroin whilst discussing his addiction. Drozd is, without doubt, an immensely talented musician on a number of instruments and is as key to the Flaming Lips as Coyne. A confrontation between the two leads to Drozd checking in to rehab to beat his habit. This is, without doubt, my favourite out of any of the entries on this list and certainly the one I’ve re-watched the most. I really can’t recommend this enough.
Add your favourites below.