In honour of this week’s release of Frank, Lenny Abrahamson’s film about a young musician who joins a band led by an eccentric frontman who always wears a papier-mâché head, I’m With Geek is going to Band Camp! Today, we’ve got two articles in which we’ll be looking over the films that try to capture the insane, intoxicating and turbulent world of being in a band.
This edition: Music Documentaries!
Metallica are just now, and have been pretty much since they hit their stride decades ago, one of the biggest bands ever. As such, it was only a matter of time before their story went in front of a camera, and the camera was that of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The film was 2004’s Some Kind of Monster. Hoping to make a film about the band that pulled no punches and hid no truths, Berlinger and Sinofsky’s film came to chart the band’s struggles to reassert itself after the departure of their bassist Jason Newsted, and frontman James Hetfield’s entry into rehab for alcoholism. The band struggle through these as initial barriers on the difficult road to creating St. Anger, their first album since 1997’s Reload, with all kinds of bickering and squabbling along the way. Speaking of bickering and squabbling…
Generally noted as one of the greatest concert films of all time is Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, showcasing the Talking Heads as they played Hollywood's Pantages Theater in 1983 for their Speaking in Tongues tour. Keeping the cameras on the band for almost the entire duration (very little audience is actually seen onscreen), the concert starts with a lone David Byrne onstage and steadily builds with each successive song until each member is finally onstage by the sixth or seventh song. Demme does manage to capture every bit of the weirdness of the band by largely just letting them do what they do and keeping it all onscreen for the home audience to see. And the band’s gradual assembly over the course of the set list effectively creates a simple momentum that it is able to build on until Byrne breaks out his famous “big suit.” Yes, they’re quirky and off-kilter, by God this is genuinely great stuff.
Scorsese is certainly no stranger to the music documentary on his own. Camera operator on Gimme Shelter, editor of Oscar-winning festival documentary Woodstock, and director of both Shine a Light and The Last Waltz. The Last Waltz is a special film in that it focuses on the final concert of The Band, a blues rock band whose farewell gig ended with a huge concert featuring dozens of special guests, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, and many others. The film has gone on to become regarded as one of the greatest concert films of all time, capturing something unique: the willing end to a musical legacy.
Speaking of greater social contextualisation, back in 2003 the Dixie Chicks made comments during a live London gig that criticised the then-president George W. Bush and his policies. The resultant backlash against the musical trio, which lasted around three years, was subsequently documented in the 2006 film Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing. At the time the most successful female band in the history of the US, the comments made by lead singer Natalie Maines threw the band into a storm of hatred, threats and other serious ramifications, which became the biggest story in popular culture at the time. Shut Up and Sing puts the whole debacle as its focus, and serves as an interesting look at not only what the band means within culture, but how the women react when their fanbase suddenly turns on them. Overblown hysteria or legitimate political subversion? Take a look and see what you think.
Another individual who struggled with demons of a different kind was Chet Baker, one of the great jazz trumpeters and singers, whose life was a haze of fame and drug addiction which haunted him for most of his career. This story was eventually told in Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost, a more artistically rendered film that sought to tell Baker’s story through combined footage of his early career as a young handsome jazz musician of the 1950s juxtaposed against footage of Baker in the late 1980s, his face and figure a haggard shell of its former self, ravaged by years of abuse. Two things that remain so haunting about Weber’s film: 1) The film was released to festivals a matter of months after his death in 1988, marking it especially poignant; and 2) Even in his declined state shown in the footage of his older self, his distinctive voice was almost untouched by all he’d put himself through. An eerie and affecting film.
In a similar vein, 2012’s A Band Called Death charts the story of the 1970s rock band Death, their stunted attempts to find their footing and the subsequent popularity they received decades after the group first recorded music. Death were a band of three musician brothers hailing from Detroit who started out as a funk outfit, before evolving into the punk band named Death. The raw nature of their music and the uncompromising nature of the band’s primary creative force, eldest brother David, who refused to change the band’s name to something more acceptable, meant that they just couldn’t get airplay and that their dream of stardom was never to come to fruition. The film does touch on sadly familiar tropes within the story of musicians who didn’t make it (frustration, depression, alcoholism, death), but the people telling the story are so open and loving of each other that they are genuinely able to find a measure of peace and harmony with their story.
There really are music documentaries available for every type of story and occasion, from the drug-addled ego-fests to the portraits of troubled souls, from the uneasy influence a band can have to the bittersweet tales of those that just missed out. The human drama of those people who try so hard to create music for the world is a thing that simply cannot be missed, and fortunately there have been many a filmmaker who have been able to point a camera at the right people at just the right time.
And just think, there are so many stories still out there to be told and discovered.
But wait… where’s Marley? Or Searching for Sugar Man? Or Loud Quiet Loud? What music documentaries deserve to be considered by those looking to immerse themselves in the genre? Answers on a comment card below.