Sound and vision are a match made in heaven and the best music documentaries combine both to create something special, but which ones stand head and shoulders above the rest?
When You’re Strange
Nearly 40 years after Jim Morrison’s death in a Paris bathtub, Doors fans were blown away by much of the new and rarely seen footage in Tom DiCillo’s 2009 documentary When You’re Strange.
Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek described the film as everything the 1991 Oliver Stone film wasn’t, namely less Hollywood and much more real. Using nothing but archive footage, including a host of groundbreaking musical performances by the band, the documentary captures in 86 captivating minutes the full raging glory of The Doors story.
The only weak point is Johnny Depp’s unnecessary dramatic and hammy narration. That aside however, and you have a documentary which is tellingly evocative of the 1960s. Through intimate and behind the scenes footage it also paints a portrait of Jim Morrison as a talented and troubled man rather than a monstrous and magical myth. Although it does fall into the deadly romantic trap of opening with Jimbo cruising along in the car listening to his own death being broadcast on the radio. But hey man, that’s rock n’ roll.
Ondi Timoner’s controversial 2004 documentary is about not one band but two: The Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Although members of the Brian Jonestown Massacre dismissed the film as nothing more than “bold faced lies and misrepresentation of fact,” and Warhols’ front-man Courtney Taylor-Taylor labeled the whole experience a “mess,” it makes for compelling rock n’ roll viewing.
Bands and their members can be very petty, childish, and competitive imbeciles at times, and Dig perfectly captures the engaging rivalry and love-hate relationship between the Warhols and the Massacre.
Narrated by Taylor-Taylor in a fiercely one-sided and vaguely patronizing style, it’s no surprise that the Dandys come out looking a lot better than the shambolic and screwed up Jonestown crew. Having said that, Dig is very much Jonestown lead singer, Anton Newcombe’s film. The weirdly charismatic and wonderfully bizarre front-man dominates every scene he appears in.
Don’t Look Back
D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary, filmed during Bob Dylan’s 1965 UK tour was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Don’t Look Back may be all those things, but most people love it because it captures one of the most important solo artists of the 20th century at one of the most relevant, influential, creative, transitory, and downright hilarious phases of his career.
An impossibly young Dylan stalks through the film like a contrary, confrontational, charismatic, charming, and chaotic speed-freak with an acid tongue and a razor sharp mind ticking over at a million miles per second.
His acoustic musical performances in the film take a back-seat to his verbally versatile jousts with the press, friends, fans, and fellow musicians. Dylan has never looked as impossibly cool as this before or since.
Martin Scorcese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home, is much more comprehensive but nowhere near as engaging or entertaining as this rocket from the crypt.
The Filth and the Fury
You’ll probably need to take an aspirin and have a lie down in a darkened room after watching Julian Temple’s 2000 film on the Sex Pistols. Because from the first scene to the last, The Filth and the Fury is one long exhilarating, adrenaline charged roller-coaster ride, charting the rise and fall of the uniquely British Pistols.
With archive footage, interspersed with an abundance of chaotic material from the 1970s and scenes of the Pistols candidly telling their story in their own words, the documentary captures the anger, energy, humor, originality, and stubborn individuality that made the Pistols great.
Watch out for the hilarious scene when John Lydon sums up original Pistols bassist Glenn Matlock with the words, “If you look like a c**t and talk like a c**t, then you’re a c**t.” Don’t pull any punches hey Johnny boy.
The Kids Are Alright
Despite director and massive Who fan Jeff Stein having no previous experience filming, he managed to make one of the best rockumentaries ever with his 1979 film, The Kids Are Alright.
Renowned mainly for giving people who never had the opportunity to see The Who play live, a taste of just how dynamic and incendiary four men playing their hearts out could be, there’s also a great montage of The Who systematically destroying more equipment than most bands ever get to own.
The film follows the band’s musical progression from their modtastic, pill-popping early days to their rock opera heyday, right up to their bloated late 1970’s period.
Sadly, the film was overshadowed on its release by the death of drummer Keith Moon, whose last ever performance with The Who is captured on the film. Apparently after watching the rough cut, Moon was so shocked at just how much he had changed physically in the 15 years the film encapsulates, he sunk into a depression and died a week later from an overdose. Fortunately for us, the film stands as a glorious testament to the redemptive and raw power of rock n’ roll.
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