Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Film Babble Blog's 10 Definitive Rockumentaries

Peter Bogdonavich's new four hour Tom Petty documentary RUNNING DOWN A DREAM inspired me to make a list of 10 essential and definitive rockumentaries. So here goes:

1. A tie - DON’T LOOK BACK (Dir. D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2005)

Despite the fact that I hate ties this shouldn't surprise anyone, I mean have you met me? D.A. Pennebaker's document of Bob's 1965 British tour coupled with Marty's wider scoped portrait of Dylan's rise to fame are equally essential so I could not separate them. 

The Bob shown in these docs, with the wild hair, sunglasses and mod clothing is the same Bob that Cate Blanchett portrayed in I'M NOT THERE - the one most caged in his persona and held to the highest levels of scrutiny. Incredible concert footage flows through both films and hits its pinnacle in May 1966 when Bob faces a hostile crowd and a historic heckler - "Judas!" is shouted from the darkness one night in Manchester. "I don't believe you - you're a liar!" 

Dylan sneers before launching into a mindblowingly rawking "Like A Rolling Stone". Scorsese and Pennebaker both capture lightning in a bottle and leave us with glorious glimpses of the greatest songwriter ever in his prime serenading the world even when most of the world wasn't quite ready for his weary tune.

(Dir. Sam Jones, 2002)

Not a career overview but a capsule of one particular plagued period when a great band - Wilco - made an incredible record (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) and it was rejected by their record company. Chicago critic, and co-host of the great NPR show Sound Opinions Greg Kot puts it best: "It's not a VH1 "Behind The Music" story. It's a not a drugs-groupies-celebrity kind of story at all. This band's story is the music. 20 years from now their probably going to get more of their due than now." 

Well let's get them their due right now because this a compelling black and white film full of great music both in the studio and on stage. Key scene: leader Jeff Tweedy and guitarist Jay Bennett have a tense awkward argument over a crucial edit while mixing the album that shows how far they have drifted apart as collaborators. Indeed Bennett was asked to leave the band while the film was being made. The band grows stronger and gets a label and has a hit album which gives this rockumentary a happy ending and a nice second placing on this list. 

(Dir. Jeff Stein, 1979)

Sure there's that new more extensive, and correctly chronological AMAZING JOURNEY: THE STORY OF THE WHO but this hodgepodge of Who with its odds 'n ends, warts 'n all, kitchen sink approach is much more exciting. In the first five minutes explosives go off in Keith Moon's drumkit from a performance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Show then we zigzag around to such '60s shows as Shindig and Beatlcub, seminal gigs like WOODSTOCK and the Monterey International Pop Festival and then conclude with specially shot for the film footage from Shepperton Film Studios mere months before Moon's death in '78. 

We don't get narration or anything in the way of historical context - none of the bits are titled and nobody is identified and it is all out of order - but the collage effect satisfies and everything gels together like one of best movie mix-tapes ever.

Key scene: The Who blow the Stones off the stage on their own TV special (The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus) with a ferocious version of "A Quick One, While He's Away."

(Dirs. Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)

The '60s dream died here, or so the tale goes - just ask Don McLean. That fatal night at Altamont Speedway where Hells Angels acted as security for a free Rolling Stones gig made what could have been just an assembly line concert film (see LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER for that) into a piece of true crime documentation that could play on MSNBC as well as VH1 Classic. The Stones had shed psychedelia and were getting back to their roots so in 1969, touring with Ike and Tina Turner and we get a good sampling of a Madison Square Garden concert (also featured on the album "Get Your Ya-Yas Out") and a stirring performance of "Wild Horses" at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama before proceeding to the scene of the crime in California. 

We see Mick Jagger and Keith Richards watching the Altamont footage in the editing room and they freeze the image of a knife in the hand held above the fighting crowd and it is one of the most chilling images in cinema that has ever been seen. I don't know if Satan was laughing with delight like McLean sings in "American Pie" but he was sure smirking. 

(Dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1970)

Actually the '60s dream died here too. 

The break-up of the Beatles with their final public performance on a rooftop in London is a tough sad watch but one that's vital in understanding exactly how the mighty can fall. Unfortunately because as producer and former Beatles assistant Neil Aspinall said recently "When we got halfway through restoring it, we looked at the outtakes and realized: this stuff is still controversial. 

It raised a lot of old issues" - the film may not see the light of a DVD player anytime soon. That's too bad - even though it's not the Beatles at their best it's them at their most human and as uncomfortable as George Harrison's studio squabble with Paul McCartney is (George: "'ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won't play at all if you don't want me to play, you know. Whatever it is that'll please you, I'll do it.") we still somehow feel the love in what they were trying to make. And in the end isn't that what they were trying to tell us all along? 

6. DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004) 

Though most haven't heard of either of the bands studied here - The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre this tale of the sometimes friendly rivalry will make people listen up. Billed as "a real-life Spinal Tap" DiG! follows these bands with their retro rock through a few years of touring, arguing, getting wasted, busted, and getting up to do it all again. Despite the fact that DW frontman Courtney Taylor narrates, BJM member Anton Newcombe steals the show over and over with his asshole antics and crazy talk like "I'm not for sale. I'm fucking Love, do you understand what I'm saying? Like, the Beatles were for sale. I give it away." Maybe the funniest rockumentary on this list. 

(Dir. Declan Lowney, 1992)

Bob Marley's story is pretty glossed over in this doc but that is okay because it is so full of great footage with many full songs represented. Interview footage doesn't really provide insights - except that Marley was always stoned - but footage from the One Love Peace Concert and various '70s TV shows (particuraly the footage from the Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC 1973 pictured left) is worth many repeat viewings. 

(Dir. Alek Kekishian, 1991) 

I'm sure there are those who will scoff but I added this not just because I realized that this list was too much of a sausage party but because it's seriously a notable rockumentary. There sadly aren't many docs about female artists so this will have to some representin.'

This follows Madonna on her controversial Blond Ambition tour and has the backstage bits in DON'T LOOK BACK-esque hand-held black and white while the concert sequences are in color. We do actually get some amusing insights like when Warren Beatty, who briefly dated Madonna during the filming of DICK TRACY, says of her when she's having a dental appointment filmed: "she doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk. There's nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it's off-camera? What point is there existing? " None I can think of. 

(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1978) 

Sure Marty and The Band (they were Bob's band in 1965-66 under the name The Hawks) were both represented at the #1 spot on this list but this film deserves to place on its own. 

It's a doc wrapped around a seminal concert film - the farewell performance of arguably the greatest Canadian band ever who play an incredible set helped out by their friends - including ace work by Eric Clapton,Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond (!), and their old bandleader Bob Dylan. 

The interview segments with Scorsese sitting casually around for conversations with Band members Robbie Robertson and Co. were parodied by Rob Reiner as director Marty DiBergi in THIS IS SPINAL TAP and they set a precedent for rockumentary etiquette. But for my money, the sequence in which Neil Young sings "Helpless" with The Band and accompanied by the beautiful backup singing of Joni Mitchell in the wings is one of the most infectious pieces of musical celluloid ever presented. 

That Marty had to visually edit a nugget of cocaine hanging off Young's nose by rotoscoping in post production only adds to the affecting edge. 

(Dir. Paul Justman, 2002) 

This film provides a great service - it shines a light on the largely unknown supporting players on some of the greatest music of the 20th century. The Funk Brothers provided the backing for literally hundreds of hits that defined "the Detroit sound" - the memorable melodies behind Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Supremes, and many others. 

We get interviews with Bandleader Joe Henry and various other surviving Funk Brother members and we see new live performances where they play with such soul notables as Me'shell Ndegeocello, Chaka Kahn, and Bootsy Collins. An incredibly entertaining and emotional experience with a band that should be grandly celebrated for, as narrating actor Andre Braugher tells us, "having played on more number-one records than The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined."

Postnotes: I tried to focus on wide-ranging documentaries not straight concert films hence the ommision of the Jonathan Demme's amazing STOP MAKING SENSE (which would place high on a list of straight concert films) and other worthy films of that caliber. 

Some other honorable mentions: THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (reviewed on Film Babble Blog on Oct. 11th, 2006) GIGANTIC (A TALE OF TWO JOHNS) - A great doc about They Might Be Giants, a band who many left behind in college but is still part of our Daily Show lives. THE BEATLES ANTHOLOGY - If you ever have a day to kill you could do much worse than watching this 674 min. production. MONTEREY POP METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER - This hilarious doc about a once mighty metal and going into therapy is the real-life Spinal Tap IMHO. 

THE FIFTH AND THE FURY- Julien Temple and the Sex Pistols - need I say more? THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILISATION This and its 2 sequels which cover the history of decadent underworld of punk and metal are as essential as rockumentaries can get. Whew! Okay, that's enough rockumentaries for now. If you think I've left out your favorite - that's what the comments below is for.

More later...

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