Power (Dis)Chords: The Year in Rock Documentaries

Bill Gibron

All of the best rock docs I saw on DVD in 2005 illustrate how fame fucks things up.

PopMatters Film & TV Columns Editor

All of the best rock docs I saw on DVD in 2005 illustrate how fame fucks things up. Consider Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Making of Smile (May 2005). It recalls that Brian Wilson famously battled an abusive dad, disgruntled bandmates, and a sliding sense of dignity. And whether he was crafting timeless hit songs for the Beach Boys, producing his own personal "symphonies to God" or forging one of the best albums of all time (Pet Sounds), Wilson was never satisfied.

The film chronicles his arduous journey from failed 1960s studio experiments to triumphant post-millennial masterpiece, that is, Smile. Helped by The Wondermints, who long wanted to hear this shelved soundscape (Wilson began the project as a follow-up to Sounds, but abandoned it), this touching tell-all is the story of the songwriting sage reborn. Through the process of revisiting and reproducing the left-for-dead project, it appears as if Wilson found himself again as well.

Rediscovery is also at the heart of No Direction Home (September 2005). Bob Dylan has recently become a semi-surreal artifact. His advancing age, personal idiosyncrasies, and wistful whine leave today's audiences puzzled over his importance. Martin Scorsese's documentary underlines his place in the pantheon of stellar singer/songwriters. Focused on only a sliver of Dylan's long career (1961 to '66), the film situates him between Presley and the Beatles, as he forges his love of folk into a powerful personal statement. This mild-mannered Minnesota boy shook up the post-Beat New York scene by daring to do something no one else did: he imitated others to reflect his own values.

Also emerging in the mid-'70s, punk exploded in the downtown dives of major metropolises, spreading its piston-pumping power to an eager adolescent audience. In England, the Sex Pistols strutted. While their music today seems more amusing than confrontational, there is no denying that they frightened the British Establishment. And though it's not a proper tell-all, the re-released to DVD Great Rock and Roll Swindle (May 2005) showcases the hyperbole surrounding the band. Filled with fantastic live footage, ridiculous fictions, and Sid Vicious' infamous reading of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," this excess as exposé reminds us that the power of punk lay both in its music and its anger.

It is a message made even clearer in Don Lett's Punk: Attitude (September 2005). Chronicling the scene from its early, squirrelly days to the transformation into hardcore and speed metal, this coast to coast/country to country compendium is full of snapshots of the music's emergence and decline: one musician points out that the minute Macy's started selling safety-pin dresses, the movement was dead.

That punk enveloped the West Coast is not shocking. It also provided the start for one of the era's most enigmatic bands. X was a combination of rockabilly root-hog and fierce folk poetry. X: The Unheard Music (January, 2005) is a time capsule and concert, a chance to see the band play a few unforgettable songs alongside the decaying landscape of late '70s L.A. Similar to Swindle in its mixing of fantasy with reality, it offers masterful focuses on leaders (and then lovers) John Doe and Exene Cervenka as they work out their lyrical laments, and glam guitarist Billy Zoom preening for the camera. His platinum-pompadoured persona practically signals the death knell for the scene.

During this rise of the rebels, several acts wanted to get on the gravy train, and others who wanted nothing to do with it whatsoever. In a small mining town in Northern England, rock revisionism occurred without guitars or drums, power chords or political grandstanding. In Made in Sheffield (June 2005), German electronic bands (Kraftwerk and Can) create aural anarchy. Trading in their art school classes for keyboards and tapping into technology for their inspiration, groups like Human League, Heaven 17, and ABC distanced themselves from the rest of the rock herd. As many of these now middle-aged artists recall the era, they intimate a sort of jealousy. They were the experimental element in '70s sound, yet somehow, a mohawk with a bad dye job got all the attention.

The Runaways also found themselves on the outside looking in. The brainchild of one smarmy bastard -- Kim Fowley -- this all-girl group was meant to be masturbation fodder for male teenage wasteoids. In former bass player Vicki Blue's poignant, troubling Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways (April 2005), the band's career arc appears a bad practical joke. Even without the input of still bitter Joan Jett, the film shows the soulless image manufacturing of the business. The girls thought it was their chops, not their other "assets," that were supposed to win over audiences. Their awakening was rude, and they remain angry to this day.

The Ramones are rightly considered the proud parents of punk, having been weaned and schooled by the previous godfathers, Iggy Pop and The New York Dolls. Combining Phil Specter song sense with metropolitan mayhem, the four members called themselves "brothers," hoping the bond would stick. From a musical standpoint, the relationship was resplendent. On an interpersonal level, the link only destined the dudes to sibling rivalry. In End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (March 2005), fans Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia uncover the hatred and hurt. All the Ramones wanted was the fame they felt they deserved. Sadly, no one outside the occasional critic paid proper homage, and it tore them apart.

In the best two documentaries released to DVD this year, notoriety becomes noxious. Metallica were longtime good-time guys. During more than two decades together, they withstood tragedy (the death of a founding member) and changing times to reign over the music cosmos. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (January 2005) was conceived as a chance to see the champs making an album. Instead, the metalheads were arguing over approach and baiting each other over minutia. Bassist Jason Newsted was "let go" and lead singer/guitarist James Hetfield headed to rehab. The band hired a therapist to bring a little touchy-feely fidgeting to a situation. And funny thing happened on the way to the studio: the band rediscovered itself. Metallica learned that they were still the teenage terrors who wanted to bang heads, and the film shows the process in painful, thrilling detail.

In DiG! (April 2005), Ondi Timoner traces the increasing isolation of the Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe. As grunge was grinding to a halt in Seattle, Portland was boasting its own certified alternative scene, and Newcombe's psychedelic boogie was in friendly competition with the Dandy Warhols. The bands actually boasted they would both be the new revolution in rock, but only one traded in the rented warehouse space for a major label deal and MTV. The film initially suggests the possibility of mutual victory, as the functioning BJM score higher in the scene than the smug, smiling Dandys. But Newcombe's egotism destroys record company showcase concerts and his growing drug dependency fractures the band. Over time, the Dandys (and their cold, cutesy lead singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor) learn hard lessons. But in Newcombe's fevered dream state, nothing but total global domination will do. As the Dandys learn to deal, their lot improves. As Anton fumes, he becomes a vindictive void. Soon, he is alone, an antihero whose fatal flaw is his own stinking self.

Even for those who sought it, in these films, fame is destructive. Maybe the Runaways should be thankful they never tasted its tainted pleasures. One can only imagine their level of pain today had they been saddled with a lost legacy as well.

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