The 10 Greatest Rock Documentaries of All Time, Part 1

by Bill Gibron

24 January 2013


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:

#10 - The Filth and the Fury

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.

#9 - The Decline of Western Civilization, Part 2: The Metal Years

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.

#8 - The Devil and Daniel Johnston

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.

#7 - New York Doll

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.

#6 - End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones

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.

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