A list of some the best music documentaries out there.
Dig! follows the love-hate relationship the two Portland based bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre narrated by the Dandy’s frontman Taylor Courtney. With 1,500 hours of footage compiled over 7 years, the film documents the bands’ love-hate relationship especially between Taylor and BJM’s frontman Anton Newcombe. The bands find themselves on diverging paths with the Dandy’ signing a record deal and entering the corporate music business whilst struggling to keep their integrity and the BJM’s producing a stream of great records but unable to get there act together, fuelled by drugs and internal fighting. The documentary borders on the ridiculous with the Dandy’s absurd music video shoot with David LaChapelle and the BJMs tantrums and punch ups on stage and Anton’s self-delusion of grandeur, proclaiming he is the son of god.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance the film is often hailed as the best rock documentary of all time. However Timoner has been heavily criticised by the two bands for twisting and manipulating events. Anton in an interview claimed that so much what he said in the film was out of context: “I can cut your words with this tape and make you say anything I want to say. It’s just lies”. Nevertheless the film has gained a massive following and neither band can deny that a lot of their fan base in recent times stems from the film.
Cure For Pain: The Mark Sandman Story
Mark Sandman was one of the most distinctive musicians of his generation. Singer for Morphine with saxophonist, Dana Colley and drummer, Billy Conway, they were know for their “low rock” genre with what was described as a “slow and murky” sound. The band achieved success winning a Grammy and were only the second band to sign with DreamWorks Records. The film follows the innovative musician and instrumentalist through his career tracing his life through interviews with his family and bandmates and the effect of his death whilst on stage for a Morphine gig.
An intensely private person, Sandman was furious at any media speculation of his personal life. There are many gaps in the singers life, which directors, Robert Bralver and David Ferino fill with old photos, soundbites as well as some incredible archival interviews and live performances. “Cure for Pain” is a loving and honest portrayal of Sandman’s career and musical talent.
The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2005)
Often claimed to be one of the world’s best musicians, Daniel Johnston became a cult figure in the 90s grunge scene, idolised by the likes of Kurt Cobain. Wilco, Sparklehorse, Sonic Youth, The Flaming Lips, and Pearl Jam, amongst others, have all covered his songs. Jeff Feuerzeig explores this cult figure and how his music and art was shaped by his manic depression, his demonic obsession and his frequent incarcerations into mental health institutes.
This riveting chronicle of the artist’s life is explored through home videos, vintage performances dozens of recorded tapes and interviews with his parents, friends and family as well as appearances from bands Sonic Youth, Jad Fair and Half Japanese. Layered with Johnston poetic and eerie this film tells a riveting story.
The film was well received and won best director as well as being nominated for grand jury prize at Sundance. It’s European premiere was at Raindance.
Meeting People Is Easy (1998)
“You read one bad review and 100 good ones, the bad review always seems to make more sense to you”
Radiohead one of the most talked about English band of 1990s in this documentary show their unease at their growing fame. Filmmaker Grant Gee follows the band through their worldwide tour of their third album OK Computer. It follows the band as the adrenaline of playing is overcome by the gruelling monotony of being on the road, going from gig to gig. The band awkwardly wearing their fame and seemingly alienated from their fan base, look out of place in many of their gigs and bored or stressed by interviews with an endless series of journalists. The documentary was nominated for a Grammy in 2000 for best long form music video.
The Flaming Lips: The Fearless Freaks (2005)
Bradley Beesley’s music documentary on The Flaming Lips is fourteen years in the making. He admits frankly that just as band had a somewhat “accidental career” his was an “accidental film”. The musicians were looking for a decent cinematographer and he just happened to attend the same art school as band member Wayne Coyne and knew his way around a camera. The Flaming Lips since the early 80s evolved from psychedelic indie rock group, to later embracing the pop culture in the 90s to becoming one of the most influential bands in 2000s, winning a Grammy for Best International Act in 2007.
With 4oo hours of footage that include a decade of home videos, live shows and personal interviews and with unfettered access, Beesley has created a documentary with huge insight into the band’s mad dynamic.
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
The Walker Brothers were supposed to be the next big thing after the Beatles and the Stones. But Scott Walker at the height of his fame retreated from the public in order to pursue more experimental music. Described as “one of the most influential and enigmatic figures in rock history” director Stephen Kijak, explores his career and the legacy he left. In its hay day the Walker Brothers, three bandmates who were neither brothers nor name nor named Walker, had a popular fan base especially in the UK and especially among women (often attributed to Scott’s good looks). The documentary focuses on his early days but also on his later solo career with an erratic and often obscure output which Walker describes as a “kaleidoscopic process”.
Rare among music documentaries, Kijak focuses mainly on the singers career only hinting at his bouts of chronic depression and alcoholism. Given that the filmmakers were given unprecedented access to the reclusive singer, one can speculate that a conditions was not to explore his personal life. Featuring talking heads and old archive footage as well lengthy discussions with the singer himself, the film delves into Scott’s musical experimentation and evolution as an artist.
A Band Called Death (2013)
This captivating documentary explores the story of three brothers, Bobby, David and Dannis Hackney and their rock band ‘Death’. Inspired by the likes of The Who, Alice Cooper and Queen their music was fast and loud. For where Motown dominated the scenes of Detroit, three African-American brothers playing hardcore rock was not easily accepted. They were “black boys playing white boys music”.
The film explores the new punk rock scene in the early 70s and the brothers at its forefront. With footage of the band jamming and home videos from when they were kids, it’s also a film about family dynamics. With eccentric and often hilarious interviews from Bobby and Dannis, we hear the story of their band, the tense time when they split from their brother David and David’s death in 2000 due to alcohol poisoning. The third part of the film focuses on the cult following of Death and the collectors of their music years later.
Bound To Lose (2006)
Musicians Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber came together to form folk legends of the Holy Modal Rounders during the “Great Folk Scare”, a revival in American folk during the early sixties in New York. The band challenged the traditional folk movement with a psychedelic and often goofy style. They had a small but devoted following and have over the years inspired new generations of avant-garde folk musicians.
Over three years directors, Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul Lovelace focus primarily on fiddler, Stampfel and guitarist, Weber in a series of interviews interweaved with archival footage. The two musicians recount their non-stop touring, drug abuse and internal conflicts.
The Punk Singer (2013)
About the trials and tribulations of Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the Bikini Kills and a pioneer of the ‘riot grrrl’ movement in 1990s which was associated with third-wave feminism. “We just decided to take feminist stuff and filter it through a punk rock lens” says Kathleen. Using a combination of interviews, old archive footage provided by Hanna herself, filmmaker Sini Anderson traces the singer’s journey from spoken word poet to punk rock singer and feminist activist. At one her gigs she asks the men to move back and make space for the women, which is exactly what her and her bandmates achieved in doing in the previously male dominated punk scene.
Anderson funded the film through kickstarter raising $46,000. It was premiered in Austin at South by Southwest and was later picked up for distribution by Sundance Select.
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008)
Director Matt Wolf’s explores the life of avant-garde cellist, composer and singer Arthur Russell. A musical prodigy he only really gained a following years after his death. ‘Wild Combinations’ uses archival material and interviews with his parents and friends and collaborators including Allen Ginsburg and Phillip Glass. They recount his move to San Francisco where he joined a buddhist collective and later to New York in the 1970s where he found relative success in New York’s underground dance and disco scene. He died an untimely death of AIDs in 1992. During his lifetime he never had a devoted following and his talent was only recognised 15 years after his death. The film is a poignant portrayal of the artist’s struggles and through him explores the 1970s New York Music scene and its gay lifestyle.
The film premiered at Berlin International Film Festival and won an award for Artistic Achievement at the Outfest festival in Los Angeles, as well as Best Documentary at the Gaze Film Festival in Dublin and Best Documentary at the In-Edit film festival in Barcelona.
Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (2002)
The Story of the Funk Brothers, one of the most successful group of studio musicians in music history. Between the 50s and 70s the session musicians played on Motown recordings in Detroit. Largely uncredited, over fourteen years they backed the hits ‘My Girl’ “I Heard it through the Grapevine’, ‘I Was Made to Love Her’ and many other Motown hit. The thirteen Funk Brothers reunite in this compelling documentary by Paul Justman, to tell their story. In one interview one of the band members claimed that once they’d finished cutting a backing track, it almost didn’t matter who sang over it.
The film won several awards including a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album.
If you have not been living in a hole for the last few months you will know about this one.
Asif Kappadia’s documentary about 6 time Grammy winner Amy Winehouse is a powerful tribute to the singer’s talent both as a musician and poet. As with his previous award-winning film Senna, the film is entirely compiled of archives and audio interviews. With live performances, TV interviews, home videos of her as a teenager and footage of her on her first tours filmed by her manager and friend Nick Shymansky. Kappadia portrays the twisted side of the paparazzi and overall media in exploiting the singer’s misery while she tackles with the pressures of fame and addiction. Yet Kappadia also focuses the incredible talent of the young singer especially at the beginning when she was a struggling Jazz singer. Shots of her lyrics scribble down in her diaries show reinforce her talent as a writer as well as a musician.