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The 10 Greatest "Performance Oriented" Rock Documentaries of All Time

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Wednesday, Feb 6, 2013
It's time to "press play" for more rock doc goodness, featuring films which display more in-concert camaraderie than backstage sniping... most of the time.

A couple of weeks back, we acknowledged the wealth of rock documentaries out in the cinematic marketplace, even claiming that at least ten (and there will be more in the near future) warrant consideration as some of the artform’s best. We felt confident we’d made some wise choices, set up the parameters to excuse the lack of performance-oriented efforts, and expressed our desire to match director’s intent with final product. And what did we get for our attempt? What happened when we unleashed our chosen few onto the Messageboard masses? Well, let’s just say that there was an equal balance between favorable responses and those who saw fit to point out our personal (and professional) flaws, selection wise. In essence, we were idiots.
  
So this time, we will work to appease by focusing on the more “concert” oriented films that could have made our list. We make the distinction by again arguing something called “director’s intent.” In a film like Westway to the World, it is clear that friend and filmmaker Don Letts wanted to focus on The Clash’s entire career. The Blank Generation, on the other hand, is nothing more than a weird amalgamation of black and white home movie footage poorly matched to live recordings of early punk acts. Both are brilliant, but it wholly different ways. Therefore, as a companion piece to our first list (and a precursor to another overview arriving in a couple of weeks), we offer those titles where playing is just as important as the personalities on display. Again, we have more than likely left out one (or all) of your favorites. Again, we will try to do better next time.


Let’s begin with one of the most heartbreaking looks at one of the most unfairly marginalized bands ever…


 
#10—Ramones: Raw

On our first list, we mentioned how insightful the actual career spanning documentary about the quintessential punk band—End of the Century—truly was. Then we were reminded of this behind the scenes look at the brudda’s late career touring slog, and we stand completely and utterly corrected. Like The Beatles’ Let It Be, Raw shows a seminal band in freefall, a group that can’t seem to get along except for the few minutes a day they are forced to play for their fans.  Angry, bitter, disinterested and spiteful, we get none of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Instead, it’s just silence and sullen glances all around.


 
#9—X: The Unheard Music


Hailed as the saving grace of West Coast punk (so, what about Fear?) this amazing four piece blasted onto the scene with the endorsement (and production cred) of former Doors demi-god Ray Manzarek. From there, they took their rockabilly meets rebellion cause to local stages before finally hitting it semi-big. Seeing the group in these early settings, Billy Zoom’s retro riffing on amphetamines meshed with Exene Cervenka and John Doe’s dissonant Jefferson Airplane harmonies would turn anyone into a fan. It’s the offstage material, filled with doubt and poetic preaching, that makes us long for those now lost days.


 
#8—loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies

After the incredibly acrimonious break-up, few thought the preeminent ‘90s indie combo would ever reunite, let alone play together live for any significant stretch of time. So when a tour was announced, it was viewed as a last chance golden opportunity to see an influential and important act leaving its lasting mark. Instead, the concerts became a kind of primal scream therapy, guiding lights Kim Deal and Black Francis fighting through their own solo issues (and sobriety) while the rest of the band interjected their own struggles. Before long, the tensions that tore them apart threaten. Their response argues for their continuing legacy as one of rock’s most complicated collectives.


 
#7—The Kids Are Alright

The Who will always represent the perfect rock god combination—man-crush lead singer, deep and difficult guitarist/songwriter, dark and brooding bassist, and a manic jester of a chap behind the drum kit. Put them together and you have instant arena myth. But there was much more the band than the standard sex, drugs, and… well, you know the rest. Using archival clips from TV appearances and other concert outings, we get the distinct impression of a group at the top of their game. Sadly, by the time this overview appeared, Keith Moon had OD’d and Pete Townshend had fallen in love with the London punk scene. As a result, this is the Who as they were, and never would be again.


 
#6—Don’t Look Back


Bob Dylan was a dynamic personality in the early ‘60s. Before the Beatles came along and stole his ‘voice of a generation’ thunder, he maintained a strict folk ethos that eventually came to consumer him. This amazing documentary by D.A. Pennebaker, centering on the singer/songwriter’s notorious tour of the UK in 1965, argues for his place as the philosophical soul of the ‘60s. From confronting journalists to collaborator with former gal pal Joan Baez, this is the man between phases, his desire to “go electric” eating away at his talented troubadour mantle. Seeing him in this setting, you can tell he was ready for a change.


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