What makes a good rock ‘n’ roll documentary? It all depends on the personalities involved, as the top five picks take drastically different takes on how to tell their stories.
5. loudQUIETloud: A Film About The Pixies
So hell froze over and Frank Black Francis actually picked up a phone and called the band he ended by fax machine. loudQUIETloud looks at how fractured relationships can return together to create lasting impressions on fans and glorious memories (and cash) for themselves.
- Under Great White Northern Lights (White Stripes)
Touring the tundra is not for most folks, but Jack and Meg not only play music in the north; they made a poignant film about it. Between the live music tracks and meetings with town fans, mayors and elders, sits moments where you can see these two opposites moving further apart. Only the music brings them together… and is that enough? The film doesn’t answer the question, but history sure has! It is essential viewing for any White Stripes fan.
- Three Days (Jane’s Addiction)
Filmed during the bands 1997 Relapse Tour, one walks away from watching wondering how normal a hedonistic lifestyle can be. With no valid anchor to ground the audience we see Dave Navarro sweetly lie about drug use to his gal pal over the phone, Perry Farrel pontificate about the nature and the purpose of the universe, and a steady stream of cameos that bring a serious type of normalcy to their own brand of Spinal Tap adventures.
- Meeting People Is Easy (Radiohead)
This Radiohead ‘anti-documentary’ documentary follows the band attempting to deflate the hype surrounding themselves and their monolithic OK Computer. No attempt is made to see how the relationship between members works to help their creativity; instead Grant Gee focuses on the writing process using studio outtakes and live footage to build a narrative. However, burnout becomes apparent and band faces its lowest point at what seems to be their artistic height.
- 1991: The Year Punk Broke (Sonic Youth)
A virtual who’s who of the 90’s alt rock scene, the movie follows Sonic Youth and Nirvana as they start in cult following obscurity and rise to commercial and critical success stories. At its heart you see two bands just trying to “goof off” and make sense of it all in the middle of the oncoming hyperbolic onslaught.
For all us obsessed music fans who love to dig deeper into the psyche of our favourite bands, documentaries are the gold mine that allow that little peek. Of course, don’t scratch too far beneath the surface or you might rub away some of the sheen.
- Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements
How do you tell a story about a band without their music, archival footage or band participation? Color Me Obsessed answers the question by having fans, critics and obsessed music geeks tell the story of the world’s most contrarian band.
- Smashing Pumpkins: If All Goes Wrong
After the debacle that was the Billy Corgan solo record, filming began on If All Goes Wrong. This 2007 film sees Corgan resume the Pumpkins name with only Jimmy Chamberlain coming back in the fold. Surprisingly, the audiences in the film are indifferent towards new material causing Corgan to wonder about artistic expression and commercial success.
- Upside Down: The Creation Records Story
One part bands, another part attitude Creation records gets a worthy and shocking documentary. Not only does it feature the story of some Brit-pops best bands, but also how the vision and overwhelming hubris of one man, Alan McGee whose own trials saw the rise and fall of a very influential independent record label.
- DIG! (Dandy Warhols & Brian Jonestown Massacre)
Decried as more fiction than documentary by the bands involved, DIG! has absolute Spinal Tap moments with band disagreements and so-called ‘dust ups’ that leave no one unscathed. Two rival bands attempting to rise above obscurity in the midst of rockstar excess without the benefit of having been rockstars first.
- The Flaming Lips: The Fearless Freaks
Chronicling the history of the self proclaimed “art-rock” band whose origins go back to the 70’s, director Bradley Beesley films the band over a fifteen year span covering from 1990 until 2005. The evolution of a band from “no talent garage rockers” to “alt-rock pioneers” is both frightening and life affirming.
We all have our prize possessions; those items that mean more than some calculated amount. It could be a key, a stuffed toy or a simple picture, and for many there is certainly more than one. So on a shelf of DVD’s and Blu Ray discs stands one of mine. There is no lego or posters to honour it within my home like so many other films in my collection. It has no place of tribute other than it always sits within inches of the electronics in which it is placed for viewing. Despite it being a ‘silent film’ I can’t imagine it without surround sound and even though it is black and white the story is more vibrant than anything I’ve seen since taking a film class in university. The man often credited with creating the greatest film ever made (Orson Welles – Citizen Kane) calls this film the greatest ever made, and who am I to argue.
So here it is folks, Buster Keaton in The General.
If you’ve never had the pleasure, you really should. It is a stunningly crafted action filled comedy with stunts that one could not believe are real. However, not only are they real but Keaton directs and does his own stunts running around on a moving train. Literally folks! He jumps between box cars, jumps off the moving train, jumps on the moving train, sits on a cow-catcher of a moving train with a railroad tie in his arms, and sits on the trains coupling rods… no safety wires, no studio trickery, coupling rods as train starts moving. HELLO, but that is INSANE!
In its time (1926), it was the most expensive movie ever made. Oh sure, you’ve seen cars planes and even trains blown up over the years in which you’ve watched all kinds of action movies but that is the glory of special effects and a green screen. In 1926, if you wanted it to look real – then you had to do it. So not only is The General one of the greatest “chase” movies ever made, but Keaton actually takes out the whole frickin’ train and a bridge in a scene with 500 hundred extras.
So, I’m not even going to pretend this is a critical movie review and I’m Leonard Maltin… nope! It is hard to be objective when something this good blows your mind.
In a blue case, sits a piece of plastic with encoded information which is decoded in a machine and sent to a screen and speakers. The other day I showed it to my eleven year old with expectations he would get bored after he finished his popcorn. Instead he asked if we could watch more Buster Keaton films. How cool is that!
Just thought I would share… and yeah, it’s a good thing I have more Buster Keaton films.
Not an ordinary documentary(not that such a thing exists), The Decline Of Western Civilization was a focal point for controversy and youth rebelling against… well, the same thing they’ve always been rebelling against – authority. But Penelope Spheeris certainly attracted the attention of ‘the establishment’ with her vivid looks at counter culture throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Hell, in 1981 infamous LAPD police chief Daryl Gates wrote an open letter demanding theatres not show the film in his city. Of course that only solidified the first films notoriety and in essence helped it to become a cult classic.
Released on July 1st 1981, the first in the series was a look at the LA punk scene and featured Black Flag, Circle Jerks, X, Germs, Catholic Discipline and Fear. The movie poster accidently bordered on the macabre in featuring the Germs singer Darby Crash on stage with his eyes closed mere weeks after his death from a heroin overdose. The poster had been designed and printed before his death, but it certainly added to the hype surrounding the film.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years was released in 1988 and took a close look at the excesses and contradictions found in the LA glam metal scene. While Spheeris admitted to faking a scene with Ozzy Osbourne that depicted him shaking and spilling a glass of orange juice because of alcohol withdrawal; the rest of the film came off as a horror expose about the futility and stupidity of her subject matter. While the first films youths were fighting for something, the second saw the hair metal kids fighting for fame and fortune… aka nothing in particular. Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine is on record declaring that The Metal Years was in part responsible for the fall of glam metal and the rise of thrash and grunge; hypothesizing that fans were disgusted by scenes of debauchery. In essence the film suggests that fans just couldn’t relate on any level to the real existence of these rock stars and their hangers on.
However, the final film in the trilogy, The Decline of Western Civilization: Part 3, is by far the scariest and most difficult of the films. Originally, the documentary was only released on the festival circuit and hadn’t any official release since its limited 1998 run. The movie follows homeless hardcore street punks known as ‘gutter punks’ who have ‘extreme’ anti-establishment beliefs. Despite this, the end result is a commentary on homelessness, alcoholism, abusive parents, and broken homes. After shooting the third instalment Spheeris would become a foster parent. Part 3 went on to win awards at both the Sundance and Chicago film festivals.
Whatever it was that kept a general release from taking place has just been settled and the trilogy is out now on DVD and Blu Ray. Thankfully my birthday is in a couple weeks so I think I’ll add it to my wish list.
The Decline of Western Civilization Collection was released on June 30th.
I wasn’t really going to write about WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series, but when I posted watching it on my Facebook page, a few people were quite curious… so here we are. Now obviously, I’m not reviewing the show itself. If you’re reading this it’s because you want to know if the DVD release by Shout Factory has done justice to your lasting impression of the show.
Let’s start with a brief history lesson. WKRP ran from 1979 -1983 and due to a constant shifting in schedule it never became a top rated show. However, once it was in syndication and given a regular slot on the TV schedule, its repeats were often beating prime-time shows in the ratings. My own memories of the show are from watching re-runs as a teen.
Then it disappeared. The show just stopped airing. The reason was its subject matter… oh not the anti-establishment themes and its willingness to confront societal issues on a regular basis. No, it was the music. WKRP in Cincinnati was a victim of the very music it helped to promote. You see, the music being played wasn’t purchased the same way music was for a movie soundtrack. No one was thinking long term syndication at the time of taping; so music was loaned-out for a fee over a short term contract. When those contracts ended the artists and their labels wanted more money for their music, and a battle began.
Twenty years later the battles are mostly over. Recently, the DVD makers said they were at 80% of all music issues resolved. (For a complete list of edits go to http://www.hometheaterforum.com/topic/334984-wkrp-in-cincinnati-the-complete-series-review-see-post-218-for-comprehensive-info/page-11#entry4154266 )
What seems shocking is just how well the show holds up. Yes there are some very noticeable edits from time to time, but it really doesn’t impact the quality of the show. The reason of course is that the writers and actors didn’t rely on the music to generate stories. Instead they leaned on quality writing and well set up jokes. The one episode that would have created the most problem (Clean Up Radio Everywhere) – Shout got the rights to read the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” which is just how it aired originally.
The funny thing is that my memory placed more importance on the music than it really should have. WKRP was a quality show that provided some of the biggest laughs ever (i.e. the classic “Turkeys Away”) and some of the more poignant (“The Concert” – where they dealt directly with the tragedy of 11 people killed at a Who concert in Cincinnati itself.)
Put it this way, from the time I pulled off the wrapping until the time I viewed the final episode, it was less than one week. I had to keep finding out what was next. The big disappointment in this is that WKRP was killed in its prime and it ends with the expectation that there should/could have been so much more.