12 Music Documentaries
I can think of few better ways to pass a late evening after the wife and kids have called it a night than by pursuing the solitary but highly rewarding activity of watching a musical documentary. Hell, the wife and kids wouldn’t get it anyhow, so why not delve into a topic no one else in my family cares about, without interruption, and walk away with a new set of musical facts to share with my fellow musical geeks…er…aficionados?
I’ve been watching a lot of these lately, mostly because I keep running into people saying, “You haven’t seen Movie X? And you’re a musician?” So I’ve been catching up, filling in the gaping holes in my musical knowledge, and enjoying the ride. In no particular order – except for the first one – I’d like to recommend the following…
1. Searching for Sugar Man (2012): Oscar winner for Best Documentary in 2012, this is an expertly executed movie, especially if you go into it with no knowledge of musician Rodriguez. I didn’t, and the movie blew me away, and I’d rather not say anything more for fear of ruining the experience for someone else. This is one of those examples of how real life is stranger than fiction. Inspiring, unbelievable, and positively engrossing.
2. Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? (2010): Whether or not you know who Harry Nilsson is, this movie is an entertaining romp about a bold, fearless, irreverent musician whose lifestyle led to his downfall. A wonderfully candid film that doesn’t gloss over the obvious failings of one of best vocalists of the 20th Century.
3. Vinyl (2000): A film that exposes the underbelly of record-collecting, which for some people is less an enjoyable hobby than an addictive burden. This would be a completely depressing movie were it not for the genuine humanity and likability of its filmmaker, Alan Zweig.
4. Muscle Shoals (2013): If you don’t know what the hell Muscle Shoals is, you’ve probably heard it mentioned hundreds of times in the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song, “Sweet Home, Alabama.” They sing:
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they've been known to pick a song or two
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I'm feeling blue
Now how about you?
So how about you? If this lyric is nothing but gibberish to you, check out the movie that explains how Rick Hall and a band of musicians called The Swampers created a unique sound that changed music. To me, this isn’t a brilliant film, but the interviews with Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Cliff, Steve Winwood and others make it a worthwhile view.
5. Jimi Hendrix: Here My Train A Comin’ (2013): Part of PBS’s American Masters series, this is an excellent retrospective about the guitar great with original footage and interviews, illustrating just how innovative and influential he was. More than any other musician, Hendrix makes me wonder what might have been.
6. Sound City (2013): A film by Foo Figher David Grohl, this is another showcase of an influential studio that recorded some of the biggest hits of the 70s, took a nose-dive in the 80s, and returned with a vengeance in the 90s. Grohl’s love for the studio, the equipment and the music is infectious, and he takes it a step further by recording new material with the artists and equipment that made the original studio famous. Interviews with Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Rick Springfield, Neil Young and others make this a must-see.
7. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey (2012): Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t deny Journey their amazing comeback to rock stardom and the remarkable ride of vocalist Arnel Pineda. A truly inspiring film, all the more because you get the sense that Pineda is a guy who knows how lucky he is, and who’s trying like mad to remain grounded.
8. 20 Feet From Stardom (2013): Another Oscar winner, this is a must-see film about the largely unknown vocalists who made much of the music in our musical catalogue soar. Watching Mick Jagger listen to the soloed track of Merry Clayton singing “Gimme Shelter” gets my vote for one of the best moments in cinematic history. Chills.
9. History of The Eagles (2013) is a thorough retrospective of a band that only released six albums in its heyday, yet managed to comletely redefine rock music in the 70s. The changing cast members and internal feuding only add to what would have already been an interesting film about a band that for me has overstayed it's welcome.
10. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002): This beautifully made film captures the band recording its critically-renowned album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and documents an interesting period in the music industry when record studios were collapsing and musicians were often left caught in the middle. Lucikly, Wilco managed to rise above it somehow. The pretentiousness of Jeff Tweedy is staggering, and the film’s music doesn’t do much for me, but it’s still cool to see the band working on their craft – much of it in glorious black and white.
11. No Direction Home (2005): A film of raw footage from Dylan’s rise to fame in the 1960s, it helps a skeptical fan like me understand what it was about Dylan that got people excited in the first place. How can you not appreciate his response to hecklers in 1966 England, when he turns to his band and says, “Play it fuckin’ loud” before diving into “Like a Rolling Stone”? Fantastic.
12. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010): Can a film about a band with virtually no scandals and no internal feuding be interesting? Well, if you’re a Rush fan it can be. I’ve watched it twice, and I’ll watch it again.
There are loads more musical documentaries to check out - George Harrison: Living In the Material World is next on my list - but if you have a favorite you think I should watch, let me know!