[24 January 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With its flash and power chord panache, rock and roll has always been ripe for cinematic exploration. From the fictional stories based in the medium to the concert films that find emotional epiphanies in the strangest of song couplets, music makes for memorable movies. There is just something universally unreal about someone—or group of someones—who can transform mere words and arranged notes into an anthem, a ballad, or the soundtrack of your life. Even more amazing are the backstories involved. Some of these people are barely passable as human. Instead, they are a surreal combination of person and performance, their onstage act meshed with this doubts and disconnects of their everyday existence to form that most mighty of myths—the rock god.
Of course, not every story has a happy ending. Many do not. In the case of Searching for Sugar Man, new to home video and recently nominated for an Oscar, fans trying to find out if a never appreciated American artist named Rodriguez (who would later go on to some global acclaim) was actually dead… and if not, what happened to him. Like many movies in this salient subgenre, the journey toward discovering the truth is just as enlightening as the end result—which brings us to today’s list. In these ten choices, or selections for the Best Rock Documentaries of All Time, you won’t find memorable live efforts like Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, or such historic chronicles as Woodstock (or its superior urban counterpart, Wattstax). Instead, we are looking at the personal stories, the tales of talent derail and dismissed. In this arena, there is more truth than in a three minute song, starting with one of the bravest and more brutal career overviews ever:
During the lagging last days of their infamy, the Sex Pistols released a ridiculous anti-revisionist look at their legacy called The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle. It was a joke wrapped up in a dire band dissolution. Fast forward two decades and director Julian Temple offered the band a mighty mea culpa, a chance to set the record straight, so to speak. Filmed in silhouette and often playing like a group confessional, the individual members recall their brief bombastic moment in the holiday sun. But it’s when growling frontman Johnny “Rotten” Lydon breaks down over the death of his mate, Sid Vicious, where this film finds its undeniable soul.
Long unavailable due to rights issues (and the obvious debauchery on display from many future MTV limelights), this amazing look at LA’s glam metal scene should be mandatory viewing for any adolescent who dreams of making it big in music. First, watching wide eyed dreams struggle and succumb to their own warped view of fame is frightening. When they do fall—and they do—the trip down is equally unnerving. Sure, their moxie can be admired, but their devotion to something that may never happen (and as history points out, more than likely won’t) coupled with the whole sex and drugs thing, moves things from sensationalism to just sad.
Perhaps the ultimate outsider artist, this childlike savant, diagnosed with both bi-polar syndrome and schizophrenia became a grunge era icon thanks to those who championed his simple, homemade music. Over the years, his cassette compilations have been highly prized, as have his drawings. As this film points out, however, some of the celebrity is dangerously close to the “freak show” side of fame, which become a real concern for those around him. Like another found sensation, “Wild” Man Fischer, Johnston’s personal story frequently overwhelms his melodic, melancholy muse. Both end up on display here, and the results are a revelation.
It sounds so outlandish that it could only come from a Hollywood hack’s well-worn MacBook. Arthur “Killer” Kane was once a member of the notorious and influential glam punk pioneer outfit the New York Dolls. After falling into a later life of drugs and depression, he becomes a Mormon, even working for the church. Then the last living Dolls plan a reunion. Then Kane discovers something else about his incredibly up and down rollercoaster existence. When his fellow Church of the Latter Day Saints servants discover his previous life (including photos of Kane in drag and make-up), the reaction speaks volumes. A moving, mesmerizing, memorial.
Green Day can earn Grammys and Tony Nominations, but in their time, the true pioneers of punk could barely sell out small theaters. Often ignored when it came to commercial success, the ‘bruddas’ from Queens would wind up the ultimate example of “unappreciated in their time”. With Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee now long dead, this career overview is even more disheartening. One wonders if a little mainstream success would have countered the endless bickering and infighting among the boys, but one thing’s for sure—every band who now makes their mark (and/or money) off the simple three chord chaos created by this brilliant band owes them a deep debt of gratitude… and royalties.
This is the real This is Spinal Tap. All forgotten bands should have fans this devoted. Hollywood screenwriter/director Sacha Gervasi was a roadie for the group back in the ‘80s, and when he went back to investigate the “whatever happened to” aspect of their present state, he was floored. The once mighty metal outfit, name checked by everyone from Slash to Metallica, had fallen on has-been hard times. Hoping for a turnaround, Anvil embarks of a world tour that ends up imploding. Then tensions rise between longtime friends Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner. Through it all, the dream never dies… and in the end, we’re glad it never did.
With the death of D Boon at the tender age of 27, one of the great last hopes for indie rock more or less disappeared without a trace. Even the constantly callbacks by critics, many of whom adored the Minutemen’s rare, revisionist fusion, couldn’t resurrect their funk punk presence. While the group would become a foundation for part of the noxious nu-metal movement in the late ‘90s, their original output was more meaningful than that. This great, great film, filled with rare performances and missed opportunities (both personal and professional), highlights one of the great “should have beens” of all time. It’s moving, and maddening.
There is a certain amount of misplaced schadenfraude whenever a famous face falls from grace. In this case, worldwide mega-metal gods Metallica discover that their fearless leader, James Hetfield, has headed to rehab to deal with his drinking problems. When he returns, however, he has even more shocking news for the band - he wants an actual life! Filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger happened to be on hand to produce a “video album” of the group’s latest release, and captured the clash in all its uncomfortable glory. Metallica eventually came through the period with a new bassists and a clearer corporate construct. Watching them work it out turns a planned promo into one of the greatest rock docs ever.
For many, Bob Dylan is a distant memory, a reminder of a time when “music mattered,” when journalists jumped over each other to crown the new king of cultural discontent. Fifty some years later, the “why” has been lost in a whirlwind of jokes and jaded revisionism. Martin Scorsese resurrects Dylan’s mythos, remaking him into a powerful pundit for change within the pop and idol world of early rock and roll. With its combination of old and new footage, interviews and amazing live footage, we watch as a young man from the Midwest turns into a New York coffee house demi-god, then falls when he “goes electric.” It’s a stunning, almost surreal portrait.
Ondi Timoner must have friends in very high places. When she stumbled upon the new psychedelia scene in Portland, Oregon, she also discovered two bands that would change her creative world forever. One was future MTV minions The Dandy Warhols. The other was destined-to-burn-bright-and-then-out basket cases The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Over the course of eight years, she chronicled their unusual careers. The Dandys would end up on a major label, lamenting the loss of their indie spirit. Anton Newcombe, BJM’s creative ‘genius’ would go on to forge musical masterworks in relative obscurity and abuse drugs. Oh, and he would fight with his fellow bandmates as well. As a telling “be careful what you wish for” warning, it’s a solid statement. As a film, it’s fantastic.