Monday, January 28, 2008

Catching Up With The Classics

A young filmmaker recently put this forth to Roger Ebert's Answer Man column:

Q: "As an aspiring young filmmaker, I watch and rewatch as many films as possible, around seven to 14 a week (which is tough with college and work). A lot of the time I feel like because I haven't seen every classic or obscure film, I'm less of a director because I never gleaned that knowledge.

I'm young, but I love film and I hate when that love is questioned because I haven't gotten to a certain film. What are your thoughts on this whole neurotic mess of mine? Can someone of this generation, so far removed from the birth of film, still make something as good as "Citizen Kane," even if they haven't seen it? (And yes, I've seen it several times. And no, I do not think I could match Welles' genius.)" Roy Hatts, Warwick, N.Y.

Ebert's Answer: "Join the club. I feel the same way you do. Friends of mine like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr seem to have seen every film ever made -- and David Bordwell, Bertrand Tavernier and Pierre Rissient probably have. There is a suspicion in Chicago that members of the University of Chicago's Doc Films, the first campus film society in the nation, are born having seen every film. But keep on watching good movies. And don't feel insecure when you make them. After all, Orson Welles watched John Ford's "Stagecoach" 100 times before making 'Citizen Kane.'"

This Q & A hits upon a point I've been noticing a lot lately - we, that is film buff folk, are just as obsessed with what we haven't seen as we are with what we have. This is, of course, silly - there will always be movies we've never seen - many of which will be essential classics to uh, somebody out there so fretting over it will get you nowhere. Better to enjoy the process and keep on watching like Ebert says. I usually mostly write about new movies, whether they are at the theater or new release DVDs but I thought I'd catch up a few older films in the spirit of trying to round out my film education.

First off, a film I caught last week on TCM: BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (Dir. John Sturges, 1955)

The opening has powerful modern (for the mid '50s that is) steam engine storming down the tracks shown from every conceivable angle. The vivid urgency of each shot immediately pulls us in to this undoubtable classic. There is one incredible full-on "how the Hell did they do that?" shot in the train opening montage that I won't reveal because even though it's a film well documented from over 50 years ago I still promise no Spoilers.

The train, we're told for the first time in 4 years, stops in a tiny town literally out on the middle of nowhere and Spencer Tracy gets off. He is a well dressed one-armed man with a stern determined nature and immediately is noticed by the townfolk. An ominous group of cowboys led by Robert Ryan attempt to intimidate him.

When you roll with a posse that includes such heavies as Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine you can be sure that intimidation of a high order comes pretty easily. Tracy ignores any obstacles and checks into a hotel. We don't know what his deal is - is he a cop? A detective? An insurance salesman? What? We just know he is trying to find somebody - a Japanese farmer named Komoko. We know from the reaction to his arrival that his inquiries threaten to shine a blinding light on a dark secret and will place his life in danger.

What we don't know is how much of a badass Tracy is under his calm demeanor - but again I won't give anymore away. The town isn't all scary hoodlum types; Tracy does makes a few friends - Walter Brennan as the jaded town doc, Dean Jagger as the alcoholic town sheriff, and Anne Francis as well, the only woman in town it seems.

Howard Breslin's screenplay, adapted from the Don McGuire short story "Bad Day At Hondu" is excellent with great lines like: "Tim, you've got the body of a hippo but the brain of a rabbit; now don't overtax it" and "You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice."

Building on a brilliant beginning the second half of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is a scorcher with no wrong turns. If you see this coming up on TCM's schedule make a note of it. It's definitely more that worth a rental too - I may put it in my Netflix queue to watch again especially since I heard director Paul Thomas Anderson praise the DVD commentary by film historian Dana Polan.

Sturge's film looks great for its age (it was the first MGM production in Cinemascope) and in these days of likewise lawless desert epics (NO COUNTRY, THERE WILL BE BLOOD et al) it holds up incredibly well. 

THE NAKED PREY (Dir. Cornell Wilde, 1966)


This film just got a fancy schmancy Criterion collection special edition with a newly restored high-definition digital transfer, commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, soundtrack cues, original theatrical trailer, and the icing on the cake - the original 1913 written "John Colter's Escape"- a document of the trapper's flight from Blackfoot Indians which was the inspiration for the film read by Paul Giamatti.

These bells and whistles decorate what is a pretty dated exercise - the opening credits tells us "The music in this motion picture is African Music, played by Africans on African instruments." I can't imagine seeing that notation in a film today.

The plot has a '50s B-movie thing goin' on but fleshed out with real locations rarely seen before on the big screen. In Africa, called "the land of aboriginal tortures", an ivory hunter (Wilde), who is only identified in the credits as "The Man" gets captured by a large tribe and after watching his fellow men tortured (one is covered in mud and baked alive) is stripped down except for his tied hands and given a running head start before the tribal warriors catch and kill him.

He outwits them one by one and fares equally well against the harsh jungle animals and terrain. Colorful and creative in it's use of the before mentioned African music - THE NAKED PREY is ultimately a contrived conceit, I mean there's no way this guy would escape alive in this world better known by his pursuers. Still it's a fine ride through what would soon be action movie clichés and the Criterion treatment yet again works it's magic on its claim to classic status.

It is impressive that Cornell Wilde was 50 years old when he made it. His lean killing machine of a body almost adds plausibility to this star vehicle vanity piece. Almost. Post Note: According to Wikipedia "As teenagers, Joel and Ethan Coen shot their own version of THE NAKED PREY on a Super-8 camera. They called it Zeimers in Zambia and cast a neighbor, Mark Zimering, in the lead role." Man! I'd Sure like to see that!

OTHELLO * (Dir. Orson Welles, 1952)

I've been on an Orson Welles kick for the last several months. I've been plowing through Simon Callow's lengthy bio "The Road To Xanadu" (which at 578 pages is only Volume 1!) and ordering up DVDs from his canon that I hadn't seen before including essential classics as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE TRIAL, as well as lesser known treasures like THE STRANGER and F FOR FAKE.

The crucial thing one learns over and over in reading Welles's story is that his filmography has been horribly mishandled and few of his films were truly finished. They were either taken away from him and retooled (mostly mangled more accurately) by the studio (best example - MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS ** which isn't available on DVD in any version) or he ran out of money during production and had to scrounge around to complete the project most likely not to his satisfaction.

Put this epic Shakespeare adaptation in the latter category. It was filmed over 3 years during which Welles took acting work in other's films to pay for the project.

The DVD I got from Netflix (from Image Entertainment) had only a photo gallery as a bonus feature and an awful transfer. The picture is often blurry and the sound is so bad that a lot of the dialogue is indecipherable. Much of it was latter dubbed and redubbed by Welles and the synch is often way off. If you can get past that, and that is quite a task, this is a grand albeit hammily acted production with much of the picturesque style of CITIZEN KANE in its wide shots and deep focus (murky as it is in this edition).

Welles stalks through the shadows and chews scenery with a cagey charisma that only a trained Shakespearean stage actor could possess. His sweaty wide-eyed performance is far from flawless, mind you - in some cringe worthy moments he appears to be wrong at the top of his voice (as Spencer Tracy in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK would say) as if he's trying to reach the patrons in the cheap seats. His fellow cast members Micheál MacLiammóir as Lagos and Robert Coote as Roderigo also overact but this material calls for it, actually it broadcasts for it like on a megaphone.

As the object of Othello's obsession Desdemona, Susan Cloutier pretty much just lies there but she's a victum of the Bard's weak writing when it came to strong female characters as much as she is a victum of the plot conventions. This particular edition of the film has the feel of a work print rough cut - reportedely Welles's much criticized business mogul daughter Beatrice Welles had her paws all over this reissue.

Well, there's a great movie in there somewhere so when it comes to a proper restoration I hope next time out somebody will take a better stab at it - pun intended. Paging Bogdonavich...


** MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is on TCM on February 26th at 8:00 AM. Pencil that in! Okay! Next time out I'll cover some movies actually made this decade.

More later...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Film Babble Blog Top 10 Movies Of 2007

I’ve hesitated making a list of the best of what has been an exceptionally good year because there are still many potential candidates that I haven’t seen yet – THE SAVAGES, GONE BABY GONE, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES..., PERSOPOLIS, and THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY among them. I should be able to see those all fairly soon but then, come on, there will always be 2007 films that I haven’t seen out there.

So here's my Top Ten:

1. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coen Brothers frighteningly faithful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel is undoubtedly an immediate classic. I'll refrain from Oscar predictions but there's no way this goes home with nothing from the pathetic press conference that the Academy Awards ceremony is threatening to be. With incredible cinematography by Roger Deakins and great performances by Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and especially as evil incarnate - Javier Bardem. Read my original review here.

2. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

An uncharacteristic film for PTA and another based on a literary work (Upton Sinclair's "Oil") this is a mesmerizing masterpiece with a showstopping performance by Daniel Day Lewis as an evil Oil baron. That this and the Coen Bros. are meeting in the same desert area where both films were shot (the West Texas town of Marfa) for a Best Picture Oscar showdown makes it sadder that for this competition there may be no show. My original review here.

3. I’M NOT THERE (Dir. Todd Haynes)

It was wonderful that Cate Blanchett won a Golden Globe and got a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as Jude Quinn - one of 6 personifications of Bob Dylan (the others being Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, and Marcus Carl Franklin), because she was the one that really nailed it. Roger Ebert wrote that Julie Taymor's Beatles musical ACROSS THE UNIVERSE was "possibly the year's most divisive film" but I think this divided movie goers to a greater extreme. 

I heard some of the most angered comments I've ever heard about a movie in my theater's lobby and there were many screenings that had multiple walk-outs. To me though these folk had the same moronic heckling mentality of those who booed when Bob went electric back in '65-'66. This is a movie as far ahead of its time as its subject: the Fellini, Godard, Altman, Pekinpah, and Pennebaker visual riffing throughout will take decades to fully absorb as well the context of the classic music presented - cue "Positively 4th Street". Read more in my original review here. 

4. ZODIAC (Dir. David Fincher)

An unjustly overlooked new-fangled stylized, though with old-school ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN tactics, serial killer period piece procedural - which I know makes it sound either too scary or too boring (or both), but damnit this is a knock-out of a movie. Fincher utilizes every bit of info available about the original late '60s to '70s case about the Zodiac killer through his baffling coded killings to the sporadic nature of his possible identity, through the incompetent technology of the time and the mislaid evidence because of separate investigations. 

So fascinating, it will take a few more viewings to fully appreciate how fascinating it is - and I haven't even seen the Director's Cut! With passionate performances by Jake Gyllenhall, Robert Downey Jr., Chloë Sevigny and Mark Ruffalo. Read my original review here. 

5. 3:10 TO YUMA (Dir. James Mangold)

In this remake of the 1957 film based on the Elmore Leonard short story set in the 1880's, Christian Bale is a down on his luck handicapped farmer who takes on the job of transporting evil yet poetic outlaw Russell Crowe across dangerous terrain to the scheduled train of the title. An amazing sense of pacing plus the ace performances of the principals help this transcend the "revitalizing the Western" brand it's been stupidly stamped with. A stately yet grandly entertaining movie with an extremely satisfying ending. Read my original review here. 

6. AWAY FROM HER (Dir. Sarah Polly)

Julie Christie is going to be hard to beat for Best Actress this year because her portrayal of a woman suffering from Alzheimer's is as heartbreaking as it gets. Gordon Pinsent is understated and affecting as her estranged husband - lost to her mentally and helpless as she is institutionalized. He's sadly confined to the sidelines as she falls in love with a fellow patient played by Michael Murphy. My review (based on the DVD) is here. 

7. RATATOUILLE (Dir. Brad Byrd)

Flawless animation enhanced by an ace script with embellishment by star Patton Oswalt (he voices the rat) makes this story about a Parisian rodent that happens to be a master chef as tasty a dish as one could salivate for in the proud Pixar present. My original review - of course it's right here. 


Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are brothers who plot to rob the jewelry store owned by their parents. Tragedy ensues - some hilarity too but it's of the cringe-variety. Read my review here. 

9. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE (Dir. David Silverman)

Some may think that it's funny that in this year of worthy candidates that my choice of this big screen version of one of the 20 year old TV cartoon family’s adventures, but as Homer says “I’ll teach you to laugh at something that’s funny!” This is definitely here because of personal bias but isn't that what these lists are all about? Original review - here. 

10. MICHAEL CLAYTON (Dir. Tony Gilroy)

A surprisingly non glossy legal thriller with a downbeat but nuanced George Clooney. Didn't really pack 'em in but got respectable business and critical notices. Despite enjoying and obviously thinking it's one of the year's best, I was surprised it got a Best Picture Nomination - I really thought INTO THE WILD would get it. Since this is the superior picture I'm happy to be wrong.

Also nice to see Tom Wilkinson getting a nomination for his intense turn as Clooney's deranged but righteous key witness. My review? Oh yeah, it's here.


The ones that didn't quite make the Top Ten grade but were still good, sometimes great flicks - click on the title (except for ACROSS THE UNIVERSE which links to its IMDb entry) for my original review. 

NO END IN SIGHT (Dir. Charles Ferguson) 

HOT FUZZ (Dir. Edgar Wright) 

ATONEMENT (Dir. Joe Wright) 

BREACH (Dir. Billy Ray) 

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (Dir. Julie Taymor) 

SiCKO (Dir. Michael Moore) 

THE HOAX (Dir. Lasse Hallström) 

2 DAYS IN PARIS (Dir. Julie Delphy) 

AMERICAN GANGSTER (Dir. Ridley Scott) 

SUPERBAD (Dir. Greg Mattola) So that's it for now - I may revise this at some point but I'm thinking it would be better to let it stand.

This post is dedicated to Heath Ledger (April 4th, 1979 - January 22nd, 2008). He, of course, was one of the Bobs (pictured above) in my #3 Film of the year, and I enjoyed his performances in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, THE BROTHERS GRIMM, and MONSTER'S BALL (those are the only ones of his I've seen so far). 

As I write this many pundits on cable are pontificating on the cause of his death exaggerating every tiny detail of what should be his private life. 

I prefer to just look at the work he left behind. His role as the Joker in the upcoming Batman sequel THE DARK KNIGHT is surely going to be the most anticipated role of 2008. 

R.I.P. Heath Ledger.

More later...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Best Of BLADE RUNNER On The Internets

When I saw in the Independent Weekly last week that BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT was going to be playing at the Carolina Theatre in Durham I was excited for several reasons: 

1. The thrill of seeing this now inarguable classic film on the big screen for the first time in 26 years.

2. The legendary film, adapted from Phillip K. Dick’s short story "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep", had frustratingly been at “very long wait” in my damn Netflix queue since this new cut was released on DVD last month.

3. It is one of only 4 35MM prints in an extremely limited run. 

And the most important reason:

4. It's is my Father’s all time favorite movie. 

So I called my Dad immediately when I saw the ad in the paper that it was playing and said “let’s go.” 

We weren’t alone in our plans – at the Sunday matinee we attended today the theatre was pretty packed with a diverse looking crowd. When it hit the screen my eyes looked like the opening shot above.

When it was over a lot of people clapped. I just simply said to my Dad “that was awesome.” Showing my age here I have to say that I saw the film back in ’82 at a crummy theatre that doesn’t exist anymore (The Ram Theatre in downtown Chapel Hill), and I didn’t care for it. Harrison Ford seemed drab and uninterested in the material and though I liked the vision of future L.A. the special effects were bad at times- the wires being plainly visible on what were supposed to be flying cars*. 

I was 12 so my critical facilities weren’t really developed (not that they still don’t have a long way to go now) but over time with cable re-airings, various alternate versions including the heralded 1992 Director’s cut, and my father’s love of the film I have come to absolutely adore BLADE RUNNER. * 

Now I really like Ford’s layered jadded tone and the visible cables on the hovercraft were removed in the '92 cut. So since it’s one of the most fascinating sci-fi cult films, if not THE most fascinating sci-fi cult film I thought it would be beneficial to look at the best of what’s been written about it online lately.

So follow the links and enjoy The Best Of BLADE RUNNER On The Internets:

The IMDb FAQ - It’s an obvious place to start but the best film site on the web has a lengthy incredibly informative entry that breaks down the many available versions and has interesting insights into the existential matters of the most artsy sci-fi flick this side of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY – The Home Of Blade Runner - Much better than Warner Bros. official site for the film and also armed with a great FAQ this site, created as a forum for users of the newsgroup, is regularly updated and brimming with sharply presented BR related info. 

What's New in Blade Runner: The Final Cut? - A well written piece by John Howell for (Science Fiction And Fantasy Media) detailing the many changes in the new cut. The comments at the bottom of the article are a good read as well.

Q&A: Ridley Scott Has Finally Created the Blade Runner He Always Imagined - From - a 5 page interview with director Ridley Scott that is pretty essential to every fan, casual or not, of BR. He talks at length about the ending, the battles with the studio, and the long relationship he’s had with the film that will not go away. Key quote: “I knew I’d done a pretty interesting movie, but it was so unusual that the majority of people were taken aback. They simply didn’t get it. Or, I think, better to say that they were enormously distracted by the environment.”

The BLADE RUNNER Nexus - This is a nice cleverly conceived graph also from Wired Magazine's website by Matthew Honan that charts the influences and styles: “BBR - Before Blade Runner” and “ABR - After Blade Runner.” Be sure to fully click & drag to take in each department on the left - there's a lot of great trivia tidbits.

A great study of the evolution of an opinion - read Roger Eberts original review of BLADE RUNNER (printed July 2nd, 1982) in which, despite giving it 3 stars, calls it a failure as a story and concludes: The obligatory love affair is pro forma, the villains are standard issue, and the climax is yet one more of those cliffhangers, with Ford dangling over an abyss by his fingertips. 

Then check out his recent review of BR: THE FINAL CUT and witness Ebert confessing he committed a journalistic misdemeanor and that now it is time to cave in and admit it to the canon. It is now included in his Great Movies Collection. 

Blade Runner, Revisited. - By Stephen Metcalf - There has to be those who havent been won over so to represent such a clueless clan there's this essay subtitled How Will Fans Defend It Now? It makes the argument that: a quasi-sacred halo has come to surround it, a force field so powerful as to apparently render nuanced critical judgment impossible. For after all these years, and all these iterations, this is still in many respects the film panned by Maslin and Kael.What should be panned is you, pal. Okay! Thats enough of a Blade Running writing round-up. 

If the FINAL CUT is playing at a theatre near you make the effort to see it. Im going to leave now and try not to step on the little tin-foil unicorn on the floor on my way out the door. 

More later...

Friday, January 18, 2008

There Better Be Blood!

Been waiting for this one for what feels like forever! I'm a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan - I loved HARD EIGHT(which he would prefer to be called SYDNEY), BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA, and PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and consider them masterpieces, ignoring that most critics add the word "flawed" to that accolade.

The press has been tremendous (it seems to have opened everywhere but here in the last few months) but I've worked hard to ignore the banter and bickering from the film world blogosphere about this film by not reading reviews, interviews, or articles about said film until I could see it for myself. I succeeded and feel better for it - so here's my review: 

(Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

The very definition of an Epic with a capital E, Paul Thomas Anderson’s long awaited loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel "Oil!" is yet another 2007 release that lives up to its hype, and redefines the current cinematic landscape.

And when it comes to landscapes, the vistas that fill the frames of THERE WILL BE BLOOD engulf from the first shot – a Texas valley in 1898 aided by a jarring wall of cacophonous strings (courtesy of Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead) to the last shot of...oh wait no Spoliers! 

As oil magnate Daniel Plainview, Daniel Day Lewis owns the film – he’s in nearly every scene and though he seems to be doing an imitation of John Huston, has a sculpted manner that, as just about every critic is exclaiming, has Oscar written all over it. Plainview’s methods in the art of wheeling and dealing are mesmerizing as is his way with words (on acquisition of oil obviously) - “If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw and my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!” 

“Greed versus religion” is what I gather was the driving issue behind Sinclair’s book (which I really should read) and it comes alive in the person of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young preacher whose family's land becomes entangled in Plainview's conquest of the "ocean of oil" that he declares is his and more importantly - nobody else's. 

Dano practices a form of fire and brimstone evangelizing that Plainview, when first attending his church calls "one Goddamn Hell of a show." Dano plays twins - which can be confusing because it is the little-seen Paul who first appears and sells out the location of oil to Plainview. 

Plainview has a child (Dillon Freasier) who he more or less inherited as a son from a man who died in his employment. The boy, who Plainview names H.W., loses his hearing in yet another accident and Plainview admonishes Sunday for being unable to heal him. The clashing confrontations that mount as time moves on form the final acts; I must admit that in the 3rd act I felt that Anderson loses his way a bit but regains for a severely strong finish. 

The film is dedicated to Robert Altman, but it seems to my eyes to be heavily Kubrick-influenced. The opening sequence, a nearly 20 minute dialogue-free long-form montage in which we see Plainview starting from scratch, digging in fresh earth and slowly building his operation, has the operatic feel and flow from 2001, while the extended real-time pacing and gorgeous studied long shots throughout remind me of the fine tempered fabric of BARRY LYNDON

But Kubrick is only one of the masters in Anderson’s mosaic; I’ve seen comparisons to the grandeur of greed in CITIZEN KANE, the location (the West Texas town of Marfa) is the same as in the classic George Stevens/James Dean classic GIANT (also NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was filmed mostly there too), and the essence of THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE* is largely felt.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD, even with all those obvious inherited influences (or because of them) stands as an amazing achievement for a premiere American film maker and a film to cherish forever. 

This Epic-scale period movie on a less-than-Epic budget will bubble like the oil in the well before it bursts through Plainview’s derrick in cineaste’s psyches for a long time - regardless of whether or not it takes home the gold come Oscar night. 

* Reportedly while making TWBB Anderson put on his copy of THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE every night as he was going to sleep. I wonder what wife Maya Rudolph (SNL) thought about that.

More later...

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...