Social media may have robbed musicians of some of their mystique, but our desire to learn more about them hasn’t been sated. Music documentaries that offer an insight into our favourite performers are still exciting, still engaging, still a chance to develop a 3D image of a 2D figure.
This isn’t always true. I haven’t watched Justin Bieber’s Believe, but reports suggest it isn’t an intense Warholian examination of the Canadian troublemaker’s tortured soul and the nature of contemporary celebrity.
But two recent music documentaries provide a counter-example to the sales-focused, promotional concert film. Mistaken For Strangers, which came out at the end of June, follows The National on tour through the eyes of Matt Berninger’s brother, an archetypal slacker who has mixed feelings about his elder sibling’s late-blooming success as a rock star.
By placing this familial relationship front and centre, it offers a new angle from the archetypal rock doc. Which is good, because The National are firmly ensconced in middle age and not interested in any boozy smashing of hotel rooms.
The other film is 20,000 Days on Earth, a new ‘drama-documentary’ about Nick Cave. It was created by artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard and portrays a fictional 24-hour day for the Australian singer. A pre-release showing at the Barbican sold out in minutes.
We’re obviously still interested in the inner lives of musicians. So here are five of Clowdy’s favourite music documentaries.
Benjaman Smoke (Jem Cohen, 2000)
NYC-based filmmaker Jem Cohen has always been closely associated with music. He incorporated a punk, DIY aesthetic into his own work from an early age, making a Fugazi documentary and working with bands like REM and Sparklehorse.
Last year Cohen even produced his first dramatic feature, Museum Hours, to positive reviews. But my favourite of his films is Benjamin Smoke, a moving documentary about Atlanta band Smoke. Shot over a ten year period, this is a must-see not just for the music but for the incredible footage of urban decay in the Georgian city.
Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)
Sometimes considered the finest rock documentary ever made, Gimme Shelter follows The Rolling Stones on their 1969 tour of the US. This concluded with the Altamont Free Concert, during which crowd unrest boiled over when a young black man was stabbed by a member of the Hell’s Angels acting as an unoffical bouncer.
Hunter S Thompson and other chroniclers of the 60s counterculture later saw this as a symbolic moment in the souring of hippy idealism, when the dream finally came to an end. The documentary is shot in a narration-free, cinema verite style, placing an intense focus on the reactions of the Stones to the tragic events.
A young George Lucas was among the camera operators for the ill-fated Altamont gig, but his camera jammed and none of his footage made the final cut.
Muscle Shoals (Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier, 2013)
For a small town in Alabama, Muscle Shoals exercised a remarkable influence on American popular music in the 1960s and 70s. As the home of FAME Studios it attracted musicians such as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, all under the auspices of colourful founder Rick Hall.
Songs such as Mustang Sally, When A Man Loves a Woman and Brown Sugar were all recorded there, surely enough to ensure it will go down in musical history.
This excellent documentary features interviews with many of the artists who played there (and Bono, for some reason), touching on the racial tensions and commercial challenges that faced Hall when he started out in the music business.
Searching For Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2013)
Searching For Sugar Man became a sleeper hit in 2013 after an award-winning 2012 run at Sundance. It tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, an American folk musician. Active in the 1970s, he released two records with little success – or so he thought.
Although Rodriguez earned very little from royalties and continued to work in demolition in Detroit for many years, leaving his dreams of music stardom behind, his songs became extremely popular in South Africa and Australia, where a huge fanbase developed.
Bendjelloul’s documentary tells the story of how two South African fans tracked the singer down and reintroduced him to audiences around the globe. Since then, Rodriguez has toured worldwide and suggested he could even record some new material.
This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
Despite not meeting the essential criterion of this list (actually being a documentary), This Is Spinal Tap satirises the ethos of 80s heavy rock docs so effectively that it spares you from having to watch them at all. The ‘mockumentary’ isn’t just an historical document, though – its absurdities still skewer the pomposities of self-proclaimed rock stars from Bono to Johnny Borrell.
The film was accompanied by an album and the actors have since played a number of gigs as Spinal Tap, a testament to the lasting appeal of their bombastic performances. This one goes up to 11!