10 Best Rock Documentaries
No rock documentary will likely ever top Martin Scorsese’s 1978 flick ‘The Last Waltz,’ which covered the final concert from the Band. Scorsese’s movie didn’t follow the format of a conventional rock doc — they often span the subject's entire career, while ‘Waltz’ focused on just one performance – but he nevertheless produced a classic. Even if ‘Waltz’ will never be bested, plenty of excellent rock films have come in its wake, and below, we offer our picks — in no particular order — for the 10 best rock documentaries.
Radiohead seem to have two points to make with their ‘Meeting People Is Easy’ rockumentary: Nonstop touring gets old really fast, and talking to the media gets much older much faster. That’s not the whole story here, but ‘Meeting People Is Easy’ drills those ideas home with a seemingly endless loop of reporters asking the same inane questions and the band – particularly Thom Yorke — looking worn down and on the verge of losing it. But in between all the scenes of rock star griping are some real performance gems, as Radiohead tour the world behind their classic 1997 album ‘OK Computer.’
‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ offers a compelling, heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting look into the life and music of cult hero Daniel Johnston, a troubled songwriting savant whose battles with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are explored – some may say exploited – in what comes off as an attempt to find a connection between madness and creative genius. Director Jeff Feuerzeig’s film is helped immensely by footage Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo shot of Johnston’s visit to New York City, where, not surprisingly, his manic energy only intensifies.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre / The Dandy Warhols
A case study on how to fail in the music business, ‘Dig!’ follows two once-promising West Coast neo-psychedelic bands – the Brian Jonestown Massacre and their best buddies/bitter rivals the Dandy Warhols — over the course of seven long years in the music business. Led by tortured genius Anton Newcombe, Jonestown refuse to trade in their authenticity for a piece of the pie and go down in flames, while frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor and his Dandys seem willing to do whatever it takes and, after a few miscues, find rock ‘n’ roll fame and fortune.
Hitting the European festival circuit in the summer of ‘91, Sonic Youth take on the role of alt-rock mentors to youngsters like Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland and some band called Nirvana, who were months away from starting their surreal ascent to the top of the charts with ‘Nevermind.’ It was a watershed moment in rock history, for sure, and filmmaker Dave Markey’s 95-minute document, culled from just nine hours of grainy Super 8 footage shot with one camera, captures it all. Markey manages to splice it together into a thoroughly entertaining flick, with SY frontman Thurston Moore’s endless camera vamping and Nirvana’s backstage hijinks effectively killing time between the true highlights: some seriously killer live performances from everyone involved.
The Flaming Lips
“When we were young I think we took too many drugs, so we like to make weird music,” Wayne Coyne says near the beginning of ‘The Fearless Freaks,’ an exhaustive (and, with a running length of one hour and 45 minutes, possibly exhausting) peak into the chaotic, crazy and wildly creative life of Coyne and his long-running, band of, yup, fearless freaks, the Flaming Lips. The flick focuses on how the Lips’ roots in Oklahoma City, Okla. — “hardly a mecca of freaky art rock,” director Bradley Beesley admits in a voiceover – actually helped fuel their creativity, because it’s off the beaten path. The film features some very revealing interviews with the band members and their families, who help tell the freaky tale.
Ten years in the making, the documentary ‘Instrument’ was pieced together from hundreds of hours of Super 8 and 16mm film and video tape footage of live Fugazi performances, rehearsals, interviews with the post-hardcore act and its fans and a behind-the-scenes look at the recording of their 1995 album, ‘Red Medicine.’ “I did feel that there were a lot of people that either didn't have access to the band or had something of a misconception of what they were like,” director Jem Cohen said of his reason for making the flick. “I wanted to address those issues to some degree, but what I really wanted to do was just capture music-making and try to make something that felt, visually, like music.”
“I majored in punk rock,” bassist Mike Watt says early on in ‘We Jam Econo,’ which documents the San Pedro, Calif.-based hardcore trio’s progression from clueless frosh on the burgeoning punk scene with nothing more than ambition to get by on all the way through to their graduation as influential elder statesmen in the more expansive indie rock community. The Minutemen ended when singer-guitarist D. Boon died in 1985, but their story comes to life through archival live and interview footage, plus a collection of awesome first-person anecdotal accounts from alt-rock luminaries like Flea, Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye and Thurston Moore.
What was to be first-time director Sam Jones’ standard, 16mm making-of documentary about on-the-verge indie act Wilco’s fourth album turns into front-line expose on one of the biggest music biz stories of the decade when the band hands Reprise Records ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ – and the label rejects it. Wilco subsequently get dropped by Reprise, offer fans ‘YHF’ for free online and then ink a deal with Nonesuch Records, whose parent company, Warner Music Group, also own Reprise. Wilco basically get paid by Warner twice for the same disc, which is finally officially released a year later and turns out to be the album of the career.
More a compilation of various live performance clips strung together than any sort of traditional documentary with a narrative arc, ‘Live! Tonight! Sold Out!’ was mostly compiled by Kurt Cobain before his death, with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic later stepping in to complete the project with director Kevin Kerslake. A note at the start promises that “great care was taken to maintain the integrity and intent of the original edit,” and Cobain’s intent comes through in the disjointed, collage-like flow, with live cuts (which span the years ’91-’93 and include TV and concert clips from Seattle, London, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and beyond) interspersed with interviews, news reports and other footage to create an almost schizophrenic vibe.
‘Heima’ (Icelandic for “at home”) captures Sigur Ros’ free, unannounced tour through their home country of Iceland in the summer of 2006. The ambient post-rock quartet played two large-scale outdoor shows in Reykjavík and Ásbyrgi , plus additional gigs in pretty much every major Icelandic town – hell, how many towns are there in Iceland? – and other far-flung locales, lugging their gear to national parks, highlands wilderness and, at one point, an abandoned herring oil tank on the country’s remote western coast. Oscar-nominated director Dean Deblois (‘Lilo & Stitch’) uses long-held close-ups of the band members performing to capture the intensity of each moment, interspersing gorgeous shots of Icelandic wilderness to complete the effect.