2021 looks set to be a good year for the music documentary, what with Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers and the Beatles documentary Get Back waiting in the wings, so it seems like as good a time as any to wax lyrical about a half dozen of my own personal music favourites. I do love a good music doc and will happily watch one even if it’s about an artist in whose music I have little or no interest. What follows is a list of six of my favourites; I’ve restricted myself to features rather than series, because if I went down the route of including The Beatles Anthology, Walk On By, Rock Family Trees and All You Need is Love, I’d find it really difficult to pin it down to six and I could be writing this feature forever. I’m not saying that these are the six best music documentaries of all time, just six of my personal favourites and I’m sure that every one of you will have favourites of your own.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT (1979)
If you want to interest a friend in the music of The Who, don’t show them Tommy or Quadrophenia – you’ll only scare them off. No, show them The Kids are Alright; it has all of the best songs, but none of the artsy pretension of the band’s other films. Jeff Stein’s montage of interviews and live performances neatly tells the story of The Who without the use of a narrator or any form of linear structure. From the opening moments in which Keith Moon almost blows Pete Townshend’s head off by overstuffing his drums with explosives during a performance of My Generation on a 1967 edition of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the film presents an interesting contrast between how the media viewed The Who in 1979 and how they viewed themselves. Original footage of the band singing Baba O’Reilly and Won’t Get Fooled Again at Shepperton Studios was shot only months before the tragic death of Keith Moon, adding a certain poignancy to The Kids are Alright, which the production respectfully chooses not to overplay. This film proves that The Who were always more than, as a young Pete Townshend self-deprecatingly states, ‘basic Shepherds Bush enjoyment’.
THE FEARLESS FREAKS (2005)
The rise of psychedelic alternative rockers The Flaming Lips is chronicled by lead singer Wayne Coyne’s childhood friend and former next-door neighbour Bradley Beesley. The gregarious Coyne is the dream subject for any documentary maker, gleefully giving the audience a guided tour of the people and places from the band’s colourful past. It’s no puff-piece though, The Fearless Freaks covers the darker periods in unflinching detail, including Steven Drozd’s battle with heroin addiction. In a quite hard-to-watch sequence, filmed in stark black and white, Drozd talks in detail about his struggle with the destructive drug whilst preparing to shoot up. Despite the band’s problems, Wayne Coyne’s childlike enthusiasm remains infectious; much about The Flaming Lips has a raw, home-grown quality and it’s delightful to see the lead singer joyously explaining how he plans to make a science fiction film in his back garden using an abandoned septic tank as a space capsule (that film would eventually become Christmas on Mars, released in 2008). Even if you’re not a Flaming Lips fan (they’re quite a acquired taste), there’s still a lot to enjoy here.
Director Ondi Timoner set out to record the fates of a dozen or so Indie bands from the early 21st century, but her focus soon fell on the contrasting career curves of just two of them; The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. The film shows the ‘rivalry’ between the two bands, as the Dandys rise to fame whilst BJM’s chances are continually scuppered by the increasingly erratic behaviour of front-man Anton Newcombe. Members of both bands have since stated that this is not a true representation of events and that the film distorts the facts in order to create a more interesting narrative, but there’s no denying that footage of Newcombe storming off stage when a record company exec was watching or kicking an audience member in the face for heckling him won’t have helped BJM’s chances. The real winner in all of this is BJM tambourine player Joel Gion, whose natural eccentricity shines through and earns him pride of place on the film poster. The camera loves him and the film is in danger of becoming The Joel Gion Story at some points. Even if it’s not 100% accurate, Dig! is still a massively entertaining film.
SHUT UP AND SING (2006)
I’m not a huge country music fan and I’d never really listened to The Dixie Chicks apart from the odd song on the radio, but when this film was recommended to me, I was intrigued. Shut Up and Sing follows the band in the aftermath of a 2003 UK concert in which singer Natalie Maines criticised then-President George W. Bush over the USA’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. Commenting on her country’s foreign policy, Maines stated that she was ashamed that Bush originated from her home state of Texas. The British press exacerbated the situation (because that’s what the British press do) and pretty soon it was world news, inflaming the band’s conservative fanbase and leading to outrage, boycotting, death threats, rape threats and much worse. This is a scary film, showing how easily some ‘fans’ can turn on the subject of their fandom in the worst way imaginable, something we’ve sadly seen again and again since 2003. Admirably, The Dixie Chicks did not back down and the film follows them as they travel to the more liberal New York to record their next album Taking the Long Way (the only Dixie Chicks album I ever bought).
RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM (2007)
Peter Bogdanovich’s expansive film documents the career of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the thirtieth anniversary of their formation. At 4 hours in length, it’s possibly a little bit on the long side for anyone who isn’t already a Tom Petty fan, but it’s worth going the distance because it’s an interesting story of dogged ambition and downright hard work. A lot of musicians these days seem to think that they can enter the business at the very top, but they’d do well to watch a film like this, because Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (originally Mudcrutch) worked hard to achieve their fame and it didn’t come to them easily. It’s not always an easy story either, exploring the break-ups and the tragedies as well as the exhilarating highs. Although it’s quite long, Runnin’ Down a Dream never flags and always has something interesting to say – plus it’s full of some really great music. I haven’t watched this film since the unexpected sudden death of Tom Petty in 2017 because I thought I might find it too sad to do so, but I think enough time has probably passed now for me to go back and give it another go.
HELLO WORLD (2015)
By 2014, Japanese all-girl rock band Scandal had already been going for eight years but were about to embark on their first complete world tour. Accompanying the album of the same name, Hello World is a documentary film following them as they travel from country to country, the very picture of wide-eyed innocence. If you’re expecting sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, you’ll probably only get the third one – this is a feel-good movie that paints the music biz as a joyous, exciting adventure. Sure, they have a mild falling-out and get a bit homesick, but it’s all very low-key; the focus is on the music and the adventure. At the heart of it all are the four girls themselves – Haruna, Rina, Mami and Tomomi – and the film really brings out their characters and lets the audience get to know them. My favourite scene is Tomomi in her hotel room, bemoaning the fact that she’s probably going to die of exposure because she’s brought the wrong clothes to a very frosty Canada. Whatever your sexual preferences, if you haven’t fallen head-over-heels in love with at least one of the girls by the end of Hello World, you must have a heart of stone.