29 Black Music Documentaries for Black History Month 2020: #12. Never a Dull Moment: 20 Years of the Rebirth Brass Band
Started by a couple of high school kids looking for something to do, Rebirth Brass Band has achieved international acclaim.
For Black History Month 2020, we are showcasing films and videos featuring Black American artists. Enjoy them and learn about the origin of each Black music legend featured. This list is ordered by layering unknown artists around bigger names while mixing up the genre. It has been curated for maximum surprise, so a hip-hop veteran you love may be followed by a rock band you've never heard, but you'll be glad you did.
We're adding a Black music documentary to this list each day of Black History Month 2020 -- that's 29 days this leap year. So check back with us each day as we celebrate Black History Month 2020 with the contributions each of these fine artists have made to American culture.
12. Never a Dull Moment: 20 Years of the Rebirth Brass Band, Dir. Charliee Brown (2005)
Press photo of Rebirth Brass Band by © Iain Frank (courtesy of Basin Street Records)
New Orleans is a music town, where culture mixing and remixing has produced geniuses like Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, the Meters, Dr. John, the Marsalis clan, and Lil' Wayne with regularity.
New Orleans also understands what music can do for its community: it can celebrate life even in death, it can unite enemies during times of struggle, and it can pass down cultural history to the youth while giving them something to do.
Brothers Phil and Keith Frazier co-founded Rebirth Brass Band in high school as something to do, and their church organist mother trained them in the local styles of jazz syncopation and second-line marching bands.
Over 20 years later, having achieved international acclaim, you can still slide into their Tuesday night residency at New Orleans' Maple Leaf Bar and be transformed by the band's hometown spirit.
Watch Never a Dull Moment: 20 Years of the Rebirth Brass Band on Vimeo.
13. Charley Pride: I'm Just Me, Dir. Barbara Hall (American Masters / 2019)
Every night before bed, platinum-selling country singer Darius Rucker lights the candle on his Charley Pride altar and chants "thank you for being the first, thank you for being the first…".
From its inception, the country genre had been subtly promoted as traditional white music for traditional white people.
"There were a lot more obstacles in front of Mr. Pride's dream. You had to want to get there. And you had to go for it," says Marty Stuart.
"If I can get in front of 'em, they don't care about no pigmentation," says Charley Pride.
Indeed, there was nary a person of color signed to a country label nor played on country radio until 1966, when Charley Pride's RCA single "Just Between You and Me" became a hit. For the undeniably Black Pride to be accepted as a country artist by white country fans—during the height of civil rights unrest— was a triumph of talent over tradition and kickstarted a career that's still active.
"Charley deserves every accolade he can get. We'll make up some new ones if we have to," says Willie Nelson.
However, Pride remains one of only three Black artists inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, along with instrumentalist DeFord Bailey and the incredibly thankful Darius Rucker.
Watch American Masters — Charley Pride: I'm Just Me On PBS
14. Mariah Carey Is Christmas: The Story of "All I Want for Christmas Is You" (Amazon Music, 2019)
(screengrab from Mariah Carey Is Christmas)
Like a reverse autopsy, Mariah Carey's perennial "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is disassembled in this video to reveal how it came to life. Sure, the song is big international hit now but it didn't start particularly smoothly.
Her label wanted her to record a Christmas album during the start of her career, an idea she didn't like because historically that signaled the end of one's career. She acquiesced but only if she could write a new Christmas song, an idea her label didn't like because there hadn't been a Christmas hit since 1958's "The Chipmunk Song".
But like Carey herself "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is upfront and corny about its love of Christmas, and against all odds her joyous Phil Spector pastiche became the biggest Christmas hit in three generations
"All I Want for Christmas Is You" eventually became number #1 on Billboard's "Hot 100" a mere 25 years after its initial release. (It's a Christmas miracle!)
Watch Mariah Carey Is Christmas: The Story of "All I Want for Christmas Is You" on YouTube.
15. The Black Godfather, Dir. Reginald Hudlin (2019)
Clarence Avant (IMDB)
"I don't let nothin' get in the way of anything I want to do." - Clarence Avant
Singer Bill Withers is famously reclusive, yet he's the first interviewee here, explaining how getting signed to Avant's Sussex Records changed his life.
Billionaire entertainment magnate David Geffen is notoriously argumentative, but he's nearly giddy discussing how Avant created Geffen Records' Black music division.
Super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis credit Avant for introducing them to Janet Jackson, resulting in a 50 million record-selling collaboration.
In a rare moment of humility, Bad Boy Records kingpin Sean Combs says "He became that mentor for us all…became that Godfather."
The difference between these music titans and Clarence Avant is that they know how to network, but Avant—the man Steven Spielberg called to get him out of a jam—is the network. And hey, there's Jamie Foxx!
Watch The Black Godfather on Netflix.
16. Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, Dir. Sophie Huber (2018)
Herbie Hancock in Blue Note Records: Beyond the Note (IMDB)
A "blue note" is a note that's played expressively outside standard pitch. It's a note that a standard record label would ask you to replay properly. But Blue Note Records would say, “thank you sir, may I have another?"
Founded by two Holocaust survivors back in 1939, Blue Note Records is all about freedom. The label attracts the top jazz artists of the day because they're allowed to compose and record what they want without interference, and many of them want to express unfiltered Black thoughts.
During Blue Note's zenith, they released groundbreaking albums such as John Coltrane's Blue Train (1958), Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch! (1964), Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage (1965), and Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil (1966), all visually tied together with striking album designs.
Generations later many Blue Note tracks have become the building blocks of hundreds of hip-hop anthems like Kanye West's "Jesus Walks", A Tribe Called Quest's "Electric Relaxation", and Kendrick Lamar's "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst". The label remains a platform for contemporary musical expression, as current artists Ambrose Akinmusire, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Lionel Loueke, Kendrick Scott, and Marcus Strickland take flight as the Blue Note All-Stars.
Watch Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes on Starz
17. Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly, Dir. White Trash Tyler (2019)
Film poster excerpt (effects applied)
Houston rapper Travis Scott lives in a world of intense extremes. His typical day may include visiting his modest childhood home on the way to headlining a sold-out arena concert or driving his Ferrari to the police station to contest a legal charge. His fans not only love his music but they also passionately exclaim how much it healed them.
Since his international hit "Sicko Mode", Scott is generally the most famous person within a mile radius of himself, yet he's the second-most famous parent of his daughter, since his baby mama is Kylie Jenner.
He keeps a level head as he promotes his Astroworld album, but when both guitarist John Mayer (who's been famous a lot longer) and DJ Screw (who's been dead a lot longer) both show up for your Saturday Night Live performance, how do you maintain your humility? 13 years after Houston's AstroWorld theme park closed, Scott opened his Astroworld Festival across the street from the original AstroWorld, thereby inventing "nostalgia trolling".
Watch Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly on Netflix.
18. Otis Redding: Soul Ambassador, Dir. Jeremy Marre (2013)
Album cover excerpt, The Very Best of Otis Redding (Elektra Catalog Group, 1992)
This doc takes a specifically British view of Otis Redding in his prime. Like many Black soul and blues artists in the '60s, he was more popular in England than in America and was unexpectedly mobbed during his first British tour.
Redding and his band were used to playing for Black audiences in southern segregated venues—complete with colored water fountains—so performing for all-white English audiences in non-racist environments permanently changed his vision of who could appreciate him.
Redding's British shows were his catalyst to accept a non-paying gig in front of 30,000 white hippies at 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, a performance so transcendent that the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir said: "I was pretty sure that I'd seen God onstage."
In a similar spirit, Bryan Ferry and Rod Stewart chime in to reveal that Redding's British performances directly inspired them to become professional singers.
Watch Otis Redding: Soul Ambassador on Vimeo
19. Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me, Dir. Nik Triantafyllidis (2001)
Waaaaaay before the musical horror of Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper was the cape-wearing, bone-draped, skull-smoking, coffin-leaping mania of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the Original GothFather. He wielded his rich, opera-trained vocals on 1956's million-selling single "I Put a Spell on You".
His voodoo gimmicks didn't help him achieve a follow-up hit, and like many '50s acts he was swept aside like trash on a carnival floor.
But Superfans like director Jim Jarmusch remembered Hawkins' talent and not only inserted "I Put a Spell on You" into the plot of Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch, 1984) but cast Hawkins directly in Mystery Train (Jarmusch, 1989). By the '90s Hawkins was in the throes of a full-tilt revival so large even Arsenio Hall took notice.
Sure, banning "I Put a Spell on You" looks silly now. But back in the uptight '50s millions of kids were shimmying to a HORROR WALTZ, y'all. Occult on the dance floor tends to trigger the old folks.
We catch up with Hawkins here during his 1999 tour of Greece and watch him play his last public performance.
Watch Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me on YouTube.
20. Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am?, Dir. Nick Mead (2016)
(film poster excerpt)
The Big Man with the big sax was Bruce Springsteen's musical partner and spiritual blood brother, and he almost single-handedly prevented the '70s rock landscape from looking completely white. (Shout out to Doobie Brothers bassist Tiran Porter and Allman Brothers drummer Jaimoe for being the other brothers of note.)
With his leather pants sneaking onto the cover of Born to Run, Clarence Clemons became the first E Streeter hip enough to share the cover of a Springsteen album. He was a member of the E Street Band for 40 years, performing passionate saxophones solos on Springsteen's "Born to Run", "Jungleland", and "I'm Going Down".
"The way he blew his horn. It could live right... All over the world... The sound's enormous," says pop producer Narada Michael Walden, who not only produced Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love", which featured a Clemons solo, but was also was the drummer in Clemons' band Temple of Soul.
Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am? finds Clemons — having already accomplished musical and material success—taking a quest to China to discover his life's true purpose.
He could have just stayed home and asked his bandmates Nils Lofgren and Narada Michael Walden, since they shared the answer long before Clemons figured it out.
Watch Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am? on Netflix.
21. Nas: Time Is Illmatic, Dir. One9 (2014)
It's the atypical story of an 8th-grade dropout from the projects whose debut album is considered to be one of the greatest of all time. Nas's Illmatic (Columbia, 1994) is a lyrical landmine of armor-plated reality rhymes powered by sadly stark jazz samples and served over beats colder and crisper than a winter's night in New York City. (I don't know what you were doing when you were 20 but I'm guessing it didn't include getting 5 mics from The Source.)
The golden son of the Queensbridge Housing Projects admits that music saved his life, as many of his running buddies fell victim to the crack trade, gun violence, and multi-generational impoverishment that he rapped about on Illmatic.
Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, and MC Serch represent and reminisce. Plus there's rare footage of a Biz Markie and Roxanne Shanté club performance from 1986!
Tired rock critics in '94: "Are we sure rap isn't a fad?"
Nas in '94: "Illmatic got 5 Mics from @TheSource"
Tired rock critics in '94: "Maybe we're the fad…"
Watch Nas: Time Is Illmatic on Amazon.
22. Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don't Know Me, Dir. Olivia Lichtenstein (2018)
For far too long Teddy Pendergrass's most prominent headline was a variant of "Soul Singer Paralyzed in Car Crash with Transsexual", which salaciously reduced him to a rock star casualty. With his majestic baritone, supermodel looks, and magnetic machismo Pendergrass was the top male R&B star of his time, with four back-to-back platinum albums and over a dozen hit R&B singles.
The same drive that led him to sing his way out of a dangerous Philadelphia poverty also led him to utilize Alice Cooper's manager to dismantle the chitlin' circuit that had abused Black performers for decades. After his spinal cord injury, Pendergrass pioneered a process that allowed him to sing again in spite of being permanently paralyzed from the chest down.
When I was a kid every Black barbershop I went to had Teddy Pendergrass on the jukebox. They may have run out of Afro Sheen that day but they had "Love TKO" in circulation 24/7.
The arc of Teddy Pendergrass's life from "macho" to "hero" is inspiring.
Watch Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don't Know Me on Showtime.
23. Betty: They Say I'm Different, Dir. Philip Cox (2017)
Image: screengrab from official trailer for Betty: They Say I'm Different.
Funktastic singer-songwriter Betty Davis helped transition her husband Miles' fashion and compositional sense from the formality of the '60s to the counterculture of the '70s. To put it another way, she introduced him to the funk.
He, in turn, encouraged her to perform and record her intensely feminist glam-funk songs but her sexually independent persona found few takers. The seductively smooth and sensuously passive sounds of contemporary R&B radio were not ready to embrace a Black woman with aggressive tunes like "He Was a Big Freak" or "If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up".
If chitlins and durian made sweet sweet love, their fragrant offspring wouldn't be half as funky as Betty Davis.
After a trio of critically acclaimed yet low-selling albums she vanished into the ether and has yet to fully re-emerge. The compelling Betty: They Say I'm Different represents the closest she's come to breaking her silence in 35 years. Bandleader Greg Tate of Burnt Sugar, composer Tamar-Kali, and producer-drummer Greg Errico explain her legacy.
Watch Betty: They Say I'm Different on Amazon via Justwatch.
24. Cecil Taylor: All The Notes, Dir. Christopher Felver (2005)
"You must surrender whatever preconceptions you have about music if you're really interested in it." — Cecil Taylor, pianist and pre-Twitter shade-thrower.
Jazz pianist Cecil Taylor talks like he plays, with pan-rhythmic clusters of thought, meaning, and connectivity. He expounds upon physics ("animals can hear colors") and philosophy ("play with maximum creative energy") and performs his improv-heavy works with ferocious dexterity.
Although a classically-trained musician he advanced the concept of "free jazz" with his landmark Unit Structures album (Blue Note, 1966), and he invented score notation that's free of bars and time signatures, replacing them with hieroglyphs that encourage a musician's sense of invention.
"Everything should be fun" is Taylor's mantra. He'd rather be anarchic than archaic.
Watch Cecil Taylor: All The Notes on Amazon.
25. Beyoncé: Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)
The only movie on this list directed by the artist is Homecoming, a documentary disguised as a concert film. In 2018 Beyoncé became the first Black woman to headline the Coachella Music Festival, and the plentiful behind-the-scenes footage shows how far she went to not be the last Black woman to headline the Coachella Music Festival.
She spent four months in rehearsals with over 200 artists and technicians to reproduce the energy of an actual Historic Black College and University Homecoming—complete with marching bands, step dancers, and pyramid-shaped bleachers—while fretting that her recent pregnancy and performance layoff were obstacles to her success. I would have thought that presenting a culturally Black concert to a majority White audience would be the obstacle, but that's why she's Queen of the Beyhive.
Homecoming is expertly co-directed by an up-and-coming Black female director named…<checks notes>… B. Knowles-Carter. I predict a strong future ahead for her!
Watch Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé on Netflix.
26. ARTFORM with Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge (Fender Presents, 2018)
Still from ARTFORM
This installment of ARTFORM is a journey into sound. Specifically, it's the journey of how hip-hop DJs Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, in search of the sounds used in their favorite jazz tracks, were inspired to obtain vintage instruments and teach themselves how to play them for their own songs.
The Midnight Hour (Linear Labs, 2018) and Luke Cage (Netflix, 2016-2018) composers wax rhapsodic over each piece of Fender® gear used while recording a new tune for the cameras, then they use those raw tracks as a source of self-sampling. Yes, they mostly limit their equipment to Fender guitar, basses, and amps in this Fender-produced documentary, but Fender instruments are so iconically and sonically attractive that their usage feels like an honest choice.
As one might expect from the DJ for A Tribe Called Quest, Muhammad also flexes his superhuman skill of identifying breakbeats by simply looking at the record grooves.
If you're a hip-hop fan it's a documentary. If you're a vintage gear fan it's erotica.
Watch ARTFORM with Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge on YouTube.
27. Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall, Dir. Katherine Fairfax Wright (2017)
High-energy singer, choreographer, and Virgin Airlines Safety Video mastermind Todrick Hall takes you inside the birth of his musical, Straight Outta Oz.
Years before he executive-produced Taylor Swift videos, Hall was a gay Black boy in Texas, suffering from the triple-crown bigotry of being a gay Black boy in Texas. But he realized he could display his specific songwriting and performance talents into his YouTube channel which, according to Wikipedia, has "3.1 million subscribers" and his videwos have been viewed "531.9 million times".
He's recently graduated to workshopping his new show for a national tour. Four weeks before it debuts he still hasn't written all the songs, designed all the sets, or finalized all the dance moves!
No one in their right mind would book a saucy musical tour before they finished songwriting. Will our hero to millions of Black and LGBTQ kids finish his ode to inclusivity before showtime?
Watch Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall on Netflix.
28. Hitsville: The Making of Motown, Dirs. Benjamin Turner, Gabe Turner (2019)
Much like Motown in its heyday as "The Sound of Young America", this doc about the influential Detroit record label is cheery, chock-full-o-hits, and totally "on brand".
Founding CEO Berry Gordy modeled Motown upon the factory production processes of his hometown automobile companies, complete with a Quality Assurance department, and created one of the most successful labels of the 1960s with 20 #1 Billboard singles. Gordy simplifies Motown's complex history but I could watch his hysterical interplay with Motown VP (and songwriting legend) Smokey Robinson all day long.
Although Motown icon Diana Ross is curiously absent, both Stevie Wonder and The Jacksons make appearances, as does rocker Neil Young since he was briefly in the Motown group the Mynah Birds with "Super Freak" singer Rick James. Gordy shied away from signing acts that sang about drugs, which is ironic since James loved to sing about drugs. And hey, there's Jamie Foxx!
Finally a documentary that answers the burning question "Did you know Neil Young was a Motown artist?"
Watch Hitsville: The Making of Motown on Showtime.
29. Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men (2019)
Before the success of the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was the interconnected Wu-Tang Clan Musical Universe. Ten heroically-monikered MCs from Staten Island—powered by a heady brew of kung-fu flicks, poverty-based paranoia, and eccentric mathematics—dropped ill flows over multiple hit albums on multiple labels simultaneously, a feat never duplicated on that scale.
Overseen by rapper/producer/clan-master RZA, their grim and grimy "Protect Ya Neck" slashed open a ragged portal into the mainstream, one where prankster Ol' Dirty Bastard can croon with chanteuse Mariah Carey, suave Method Man can host a reality competition show, and brainy GZA can give a TEDTalk on science literacy.
Possessing mythology so deep they wrote a book to explain it, The Wu-Tang Clan diagram how their music's impact is stronger than band dysfunction, member death, and waning chart positions. Now 26 years after their debut fans are still tattooing the Wu-Tang logo upon themselves in their honor.
Watch Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men on Showtime.