Interest in music documentaries has been surging lately, Oscar winning cross-over megahits Twenty Feet From Stardom and Searching for Sugar Man representing just the tip of the iceberg. This space over the next month (or so) will feature a handful of noteworthy movies about music that you may have missed, both documentary and narrative, contemporary and classic, something for everyone.
You've probably seen them all already, but...
A Hard Day's Night (1964) - On top of having a collection of great songs, it's actually a great movie. Iconic, era-defining and fun, three things that don't always go together.
Help! (1965) - Also mostly fun and the songs are even better, but - despite director Richard Lester returning from A Hard Day's Night - it just can't recapture the giddy perfectness of that previous movie.
Magical Mystery Tour (1967) - The forgotten Beatles movie. Made-for-tv, this swapped all the good-clean-fun of the previous movies for drugged-out-weirdness. The songs are still great and while much of the movie may be forgettable, there are several truly classic moments. Kind of love-it-or-hate-it fare. For what it's worth, I like it.
Yellow Submarine (1968) - Aside from the songs, the Beatles weren't actually involved in the creative process for this animated adventure based on their lyrics. And, let's be honest, this is nowhere near their strongest set of songs.
Let It Be (1970) - A documentary behind-the-scenes recorded during the making of their last album. They intended the back-to-their-roots album to allow them to rediscover the joy of making music together. Instead, well... they didn't. A compelling documentary and featuring their iconic rooftop farewell concert, it has unfortunately never seen official DVD release, though the internet is full of overpriced bootlegs.
Since their breakup there have been numerous documentaries about the Beatles, including the massive Anthology series, Ringo's acted in lots of things, John acted in a few, and Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees teamed up to star in Sgt. Pepper's Hearts Club Band, one of the most euphorically terrible movies of all time.
A cult-classic mini-documentary, filmed on video for a cable access station in a parking lot outside of a Judas Priest concert in 1986, Heavy Metal Parking Lot is all of 17 minutes long, but with its massive following including such avowed fans as Nirvana, it occupies a much larger space in music lore. Like Winnebago Man, another '80s cult video (which was the subject of a recent documentary), Heavy Metal Parking Lot seemed doomed to remain forever unseen. Through some outlandish stroke of providence, word of mouth and sixtieth-generation-dubbed copies swapped among VHS diehards saved this timeless relic from oblivion. Once you see it for yourself and understand the iconic magic of Zebra Man, you'll thank your lucky stars that it was.
The Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival is going on now! Their wonderful programmers afforded local cineastes our first chance to see soon-to-be megahits Once in 2007 and Twenty Feet From Stardom in 2013. In the intervening years they have featured numerous other music movies that didn't get quite that level of exposure, but are nevertheless worth revisiting. They range from biographical documentaries about popular bands/artists (Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome (Chuck D appeared at the screening!)) to documentaries about classical composers/performers/instruments (Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, Stephen Fry's Wagner and Me, Pianomania, Kinshasa Symphony) to musicals in various styles (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Score: a Hockey Musical) to dramas about fictional musicians (The Sound of Noise, The Taqwacores) and back to more crowd-pleasing documentaries on various music related topics (Violeta Went to Heaven, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, Vinylmania, Louder Than a Bomb, In the Garden of Sounds, Trimpin: The Sound of Invention and Young@Heart).
And, true to form, this year's MSPIFF has a bunch more on the schedule. You could find a worse way to spend a snowy April than to head over to St. Anthony Main for Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory, Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America, Old Man, Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, The Curse and the Symphony, We Don't Wanna Make You Dance or Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil le Clercq.
Martin Scorsese has made documentaries about 50% of his iTunes library. They're all great, so here they are, with minimal commentary:
George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011): Some of these are nice enough to tell you what they're about.
Shine a Light (2008): Not the best Rolling Stones concert documentary in filmdom, but a good one.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005): Yep, it's about Bob Dylan.
The Blues (2003): The whole series was "Presented By" Scorsese; he directed episode 1: Feel Like Going Home.
The Concert for New York City (2001): He directed the segment called "The Neighborhood". Other featured directors include Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, and Kevin Smith. (Our copies are all currently missing, but there are more on order).
The Last Waltz (1978): Documents the farewell concert for The Band. Featured performers include Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, and many more.
And don't forget, he directed the video for Michael Jackson's Bad, too.
Even if you're not a fan of the genre, several of the best music documentaries of the last decade have been about heavy metal. On one end of the spectrum, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Metallica: Some Kind of Monster gets unprescedented access to the artistically-past-their-prime mega-giants as they negotiate life as something like a corporation, even sitting in on a series of group therapy sessions. On the other end, Anvil: The Story of Anvil plays as something like a real-life Spinal Tap, only every bit as heartbreaking as it is funny. In 1984 Anvil stood alongside Metallica on the cusp of superstardom, but their careers from that point forward followed inverse trajectories. The film picks up members in the mid-2000s working menial day jobs in a small Canadian town and follows them through the ups and mostly downs of a world-spanning reunion tour. Both tremendous movies.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad wasn't as high profile a release as the other films which, you know, won awards and earned money at the box office, but it's fascinating nonetheless. As you might guess from the title, it's a portrait of Acrassicauda, the first and - yes - only heavy metal band in Iraq. Also recommended.
It may fall short of This is Spinal Tap on the mocku/rockumentary scale, but as written by Monty Python's Eric Idle and featuring songs (that are far better in their own right than one might expect of a parody) by the Bonzo Dog Band's Neil Innes, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash is a worthy next-best-thing. A parody of the Beatles, The Rutles features appearances by Michael Palin, George Harrison, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Mick Jagger and Al Franken among others and is hardly the worst way you could find to spend an hour and sixteen minutes.
For your edification and entertainment, a double feature of documentaries about the Theremin and the Moog synthesizer and their inventors. Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey is a portrait of the fascinating life of Leon Theremin, whose life can't be adequately summarized in such a capsule review as this. Suffice it to say that in addition to inventing the instrument that defines the sound of the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations, he also worked as a Soviet espionage agent against the United States. Moog's subject, Robert Moog may have lived, by contrast, a relatively normal life, but it would not be overstatement to say that his synthesizer casts as large a shadow over the subsequent history of popular music as Fender or Gibson guitars. Fascinating music, fascinating people, fascinating movies.
Filmed in and around the South Bronx in 1982 in true Guerilla style, without anything resembling permits, Wild Style is an underground maelstrom of drama/romance/hiphop/graffiti/and/breakdancing featuring a cast that includes Grandmaster Flash, Fab 5 Freddy and other such luminaries. The Source magazine has called it "The best hip-hop movie." A bona fide classic.