For as long as rock stars have fretted about tiny Stonehenges, confusing sandwiches and amps that go up to 11, documentary makers have been there to record the madness. Take Dig!, a sometimes hilarious, sometimes terrifying portrayal of musicians sacrificing sanity, friendship and the ability to string a coherent sentence together, all in pursuit of success. With stories as rich and raucous as that, a good musical doc doesn’t even need an appreciation of the tunes, just a decent set of speakers and an open mind. Leaving aside concert movies, we’ve assembled ten documentaries spanning musical genres from indie to Congolese blues and representing a variety of filmmaking styles. Read it and add your picks below.
Bands: The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Dandy Warhols
Anton Newcombe, indie music’s Vincent Gallo, is a man so hell-bent on his own destruction that he’ll merrily beat up his own band if it seems like a good idea at the time. It often does during this savagely entertaining rock-doc by arthous director Ondi Timoner. In between showing the Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman’s attempts to sabotage his career as spectacularly as possible, her doc charts a twisted love story between Newcombe and frenemy and rival Courtney Taylor-Taylor. The former has the deranged genius; the latter has the hits: both share the loathing. It’s basically Joan Crawford and Bette Davis with wah-wah pedals. The documentary left a bitter taste – the film twisted their stories to its own sensationalist ends, both men alleged (or in Taylor-Taylor’s case, mumbled) – but grandstand fly-on-the-wall moments come so thick and fast that, if there is another, milder story to tell, the pair hid it pretty well.
Buy these albums*... *‘And This Is Our Music’, The Brian Jonestown Massacre (2003), Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia’, The Dandy Warhols (1999)
Band: The Buena Vista Social Club
Okay, so they’re a club not a band, but the members of Buena Vista are so gosh-darn cool that even Groucho Marx would be happy to join. Wim Wender’s love letter to Cuban music is an epic dose of the warm-and-fuzzies. Between them, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González et al had the combined age of Yoda, but their love of music, charted from the faded grandeur of Havana’s barrios to the splendour of New York’s Carnegie Hall, was as fresh and wide-eyed as a million Justin Biebers. And what music: lushly orchestrated and buoyantly optimistic, you don’t need to speak Spanish to understand the rich stories they’re telling. Wenders and American musician Ry Cooder, whose collaboration on Paris, Texas had been so memorable, travelled with them from Havana to the States and beyond to introduce their Cuban rhythms to the world. The world said thanks very much.
Buy this album... ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ (1997)
Band: The Dixie Chicks
America’s biggest Country group one day, plunging down the charts like an Ex-President from a Cessna the next, The Dixie Chicks’ blacklisting is shown in all its dumb detail in this fascinating, scary doc. It was the band’s misfortune that their throwaway criticism of George W. Bush (“We’re ashamed that the President of the United States comes from Texas”) came at a time when the hyper-sensitive American Right would have blackballed its own grandma just for looking at it funny; it was filmmakers’ Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck good luck that they were on hand to record it and its fall-out in gory detail. Even if the thought of 90 minutes of Country and Western makes your ears bleed, Shut Up & Sing provides a thrilling box seat as Natalie Maines and her two bandmates cope with the witch-hunt that follows with strength, grace and a feminist-cheering defiance. This is the music doc that Michael Moore wishes he’d made.
Buy this album... ‘Taking The Long Way’ (2006)
Artist: Bob Dylan
Scorsese’s doc makes the perfect Dylan double-bill with D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967). It’s proof that there’s no visual medium the director can’t master, as he engages in an exploration of Bob Dylan’s early life and career that provided insights Dylan fans had been waiting for their entire lives. The doc wasn’t Scorsese’s idea, but he marshalled ten hours of interviews conducted by the musician’s manager Jeff Rosen with the views of friends, exes and collaborators – Joan Baez and Allen Ginsberg among them. The tale, pre- and post-electric, is told with plenty of zip, while smartly picked archival footage depicts the tumultuous era in which Robert Zimmerman rose and rose. As Scorsese’s soundtracks and gloss-polished concert movies like The Last Waltz (1978) and Shine A Light (2008) remind us, music is in the director’s blood, and his trademark enthusiasm shines through every frame. As Roger Ebert pointed out, the doc’s strength came in illuminating the man without exploding the mystique. No Dylan fan could ask for more. *
Buy this album...* ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965)
It’s strangely apt that this rockumentary was directed by the man who penned The Terminal and stars someone called Robb Reiner. Here is a loveably daft metal band stuck, seemingly forever, in limbo: beloved by their fans and respected by their peers, but yet to taste real success, thirty years on. That all changed when director Sacha Gervasi, a former roadie nicknamed ‘Teabag’ by the band, was given the keys to Anvil’s kingdom and produced a documentary that showcased their eternal optimism, never-say-die ethos and commitment to both metal and one another. Fast forward three years and the rockers are almost a household name, even in households that doesn’t listen to that much thrash metal. That’s thanks to Gervasi’s brilliant, heartbreaking rock-doc that captures the spirit of three Canadians who nearly-but-didn’t-quite during their long career. If the film doesn’t leave you feeling uplifted, the postscript definitely will: Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow (vocals, lead guitar), Reiner (drums) and Glenn Five (bass) now have TV appearances, a new album and even a cameo in The Green Hornet under the belt.
Buy this album...* ‘This Is Thirteen’ (2007)
Artists: Staff Benda Bilili
If you think World Music is all late-night Radio 3, falafel stalls and didgeridoo solos, this uplifting journey from the Congo should set you straight. Two Frenchmen – one a photojournalist, the other a former ad man – travelled to Kinshasa looking for something meaningful. Six years later, they’d found it – and an epic, against-the-odds musical story to boot. Their tale’s heroes were a group of street musicians, many wheelchair-bound from polio, who gathered nightly on the sprawling metropolis’s street corners and jammed together. The collective, Staff Benda Bilili, recruits young monochord protégé Roger Landu and sets out to conquer the world, led by the tough-as-teak Ricky Lickabu. Their adventure takes them and their blend of African rumba and blues to Europe’s big festivals where fame, fortune and giant parkas await them. Trust us, it’ll have you grinning from ear to ear.
Buy this album... ‘Benda Bilili: Très Très Fort’
Band: The Rolling Stones
Rock docs are full of heady highs, usually followed by months of rehab and a whole pile of teeth-gnashing regret. It’s a cycle set firmly to repeat in films like Metallica movie Some Kind Of Monster and Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney. But hard as it sounds, in 1970 Albert and David Maysles' groundbreaking fly-on-the-wall film did it even bigger and even darker. The pair showed the grimmest side of the rock mainstream, courtesy of their footage from the catastrophic 1969 Altamont free concert. The pair were allowed to tag along to the event with The Rolling Stones. They turned up expecting to film the band performing at the height of their powers. Instead, thanks to someone’s zany decision to hire the Hell’s Angels as security, they ended up witnessing four deaths and filming a bleak epitaph to the Swinging Sixties. As an interesting postscript, one of their camera operators was a young filmmaker called George Lucas. None of his footage of the leather-clad bikers at work made the final cut, but it may explain where he got the idea for Gamorrean guards from.
Buy this album... ‘Let It Bleed’ (1969)
Artist: Daniel Johnston
Like Todd Haynes’ offbeam bio-doc Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Jeff Feuerzeig’s Sundance winner tackles the relationship between music and mental illness. Its subject – singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston – is a gifted, fragile figure who haunts the film like a ghost. Like Anvil, Johnston is revered and influential among his peers but only achieved wider notice via the big screen. Feuerzeig handles this often heartbreaking story sensitively but unsparingly, mixing up Super-8 footage of Johnston as a carefree kid inspired by The Beatles and Beach Boys with hard-to-watch clips of a man fighting a brutal battle with bipolar disorder. The film follows Johnston into a psychiatric ward after a near fatal incident involving Casper the Friendly Ghost and a light aircraft. Sadly it’s not nearly as funny as it sounds.
Buy this album... ‘Lost And Found’ (2006)
Band: The Funk Brothers
Like a real-life Blues Brothers, Paul Justman’s documentary reassembles a bunch of musical legends for a celebration of Motown, soul music and – go on then – life itself. They’re The Funk Brothers, the session musicians who played with the label’s greatest stars, from Diana Ross and Martha Reeves to Marvin Gaye and Steve Wonder, on an astonishing number of hit singles, before sliding into uncredited anonymity. Happily, thanks to Justman, that anonymity didn’t last. He uses Allan Slutsky’s book about legendary Motor City bassist James Jamerson as a starting point, reassembling the musicians for nostalgic interviews spliced with grainy footage of Detroit’s golden age, funny vox pops and, unusually, dramatic re-enactments. It all makes for a gloriously entertaining, well-intentioned attempt to set the record(s) straight, even if at point does Carrie Fisher try to blow anyone up with a bazooka.
Buy this album... Standing In The Shadows Of Motown Soundtrack (2002)
Before Megatron and Optimus Prime, metal behemoths came with a few more neuroses. There was muted rage – lots of it – when Metallica disappeared into the studio to record their eight album (the fittingly named, if poorly received St. Anger) and most of it came out in front of a camera belonging to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The pair boiled down a thousand hours of fly-on-the-wall footage into a documentary that took just about everyone by surprise - not least, judging by Hetfield’s fresh-from-rehab soul searching – the band themselves. But then who expected three veterans of 20-plus years on the Billboard charts to hire a ‘performance-enhancing coach’ and let someone film the ensuing strops, wig-outs and group hugs? It’s like they’d never seen Spinal Tap. Thankfully they did just that, and the result is a confessional and candid portrait of men getting in touch with their feelings – loudly.
Buy this album.... ‘St. Anger’ (2003)