It seems that, nowadays, pretty much any band or artist you care to name from any genre of music has a documentary about them – which understandably makes it difficult to know where to begin. Never fear, ORWAV is here! There being such a wide range of genres, however, each offering a huge variety of great films, such as the Michel Gondry-directed Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (Kanye West and a marching band anyone?), and the Beastie Boys’ crowds-eye-view Awesome, I Fuckin’ Shot That!, even we struggle to choose where to start. With the release of Cobain: Montage of Heck being the latest in a string of particularly solid rock docs looking at guitar bands, it feels fitting to focus on some of these recent offerings as a good starting point.
Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012) documents the final show of LCD Soundsystem, one of the most feverishly adored and critically-acclaimed bands of the 2000s. When frontman and proud music nerd James Murphy announced the band’s split in 2011, after a decade of churning out dance-rock seeped in music history, LCD were in the rather unique position of playing their farewell show at the height of their popularity, selling out Madison Square Garden in the process. Following Murphy over 48 hours, directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace explore the decision to call it quits, growing old in an increasingly young industry, and how life goes on after such a monumental farewell.
Scenes of a slightly aimless Murphy the morning after are tinged with sadness, exhaustion, relief, excitement at what the future holds, and, in one particularly heartbreaking scene where he bids farewell to his equipment, regret. Throughout the beautifully-captured footage of the show at Madison Square Garden, the knowledge that this is goodbye is tangible in every moment of the set, from both the audience and the band themselves. The message that flashes up at the start of the film captures the mood perfectly, however: “if it’s a funeral… let’s have the best funeral ever”.
Another film looking back on a band’s career after their last-ever live show, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (2014) is as much a record of the final show in their hometown of Sheffield as it is a love letter to the city itself. Since their formation in 1978 (they’re a lot older than their ’90s Britpop success would suggest), Sheffield formed so much of the soul of Pulp, the poetic lyrics of Jarvis Cocker in particular, that director Florian Habicht spends a great deal of time exploring how the Yorkshire city cultivated such a talent.
This examination of the character of the city naturally leads into how Jarvis and friends have in turn contributed to the contemporary collective identity of Sheffield, and how the local population of all ages are acutely aware of arguably the city’s best-known musical output. Featuring interviews with a variety of characters such as local old ladies, fishmongers from the shop Jarvis used to work at, fans from as far away as Australia and America, and a brilliantly odd newspaper vendor, as well as the band themselves, this is a must-see for both fans of and newcomers to one of Britain’s most passionate and articulate bands. We should probably have a look at some films about bands that haven’t split up now though; ones you could actually go and see if you find you like them…
20, 000 Days On Earth (2014) is a different beast to the previous two documentaries – narrated by Nick Cave himself, it follows a day in the life of the Australian polymath as he runs errands around his adopted home of Brighton, mixed with footage of writing and recording sessions for the epic and sweeping 2013 Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away. We see Cave as he talks with a psychiatrist about his childhood and visits longtime bandmate Warren Ellis to reminisce about a Nina Simone performance, with these discussions of memories evolving into him physically poring over photographs and notebooks from his past at a local archive in Brighton.
The obsession with memory and personality is often presented and exaggerated in what can only be described in a Nick Cave style; we see him driving around the city with friends – namely Ray Winstone, ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, and fellow Aussie Kylie Minogue – yet all of them seem to disappear from the car in the following shot, as if they’re imaginary. An enlightening, intimate, moving and amusing exploration of what makes one of Australia’s, and the world’s, most enduring and interesting performers tick, 20, 000 Days On Earth is essential viewing for anybody interested in music, performance and artistry in general, not just Nick Cave. Whilst it does feature his music throughout, it’s a film more interested in the man behind the music, and the formative experiences behind that man, which is often the path followed by the best rock docs.
A music documentary that goes even further in not directly examining the actual music of a band is Mistaken for Strangers. The 2013 tour documentary follows Cincinnati indie outfit The National, as documented by Tom Berninger, younger brother of frontman Matt Berninger. The National is made up of Berninger and two other sets of brothers, so he invites Tom on tour for a year primarily to take care of the rider, but also because they don’t get to see each other often. The gesture backfires, however, as the junior sibling consistently acts inappropriately and immaturely, puts his own filmmaking project ahead of the job he was hired to do (a project he has absolutely no concrete plan for), asks utterly inane questions and generally goofs up wherever possible, much to the chagrin of his brother, the band, and the rest of the tour crew.
An engrossing examination of what it means to live in the shadow of a successful sibling, Mistaken for Strangers is consistently frustrating, amusing, and, as the documentary begins to shift more into an exploration of Tom himself and his relationship to his increasingly famous brother, touching. Unafraid to show his own failings, faults and misconceptions in contrast to Matt, we see Tom’s film morphing and evolving into a very different experience than he originally envisioned. But as the genuinely moving final scene highlights, it’s one that’s undoubtedly more valuable for everyone concerned, the Berninger brothers in particular.
Due to the broad nature of music documentaries, rather than the regular Top 5 list that we usually do for our Beginner’s Guides, here’s just a handful of some other great rock documentaries. Different strokes for different folks, and all that.
- The Great Hip Hop Hoax (2013) tells the story of Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd, two Scotsmen who pretended to be Californian rappers named Silibil N’ Brains, eventually securing a £250,000 record deal from Sony Music and being touted as “the next big thing” of the early 2000s before admitting to the whole charade.
- Sign ‘o’ The Times (1987) is more a straightforward concert film than the narrative-driven and totally bizarre Purple Rain, but is just as brilliant. If you don’t desperately want to travel back in time 30 years to see Prince in his heyday after this, there’s something broken inside you.
- The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2005) explores the heartbreaking story of one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite artists, the lo-fi musician Daniel Johnston. Struggling with severe mental health issues, the documentary is a heartbreaking insight into how his schizophrenia affects his music, his fans, his life and his family. Tragic and inspiring, you won’t find many documentaries like it.
- Don’t Look Back (1967) is arguably prolific rock documenter D.A. Pennebaker’s masterpiece, following Bob Dylan on his 1965 UK tour. It’s where the iconic and regularly imitated footage of Dylan going through the lyrics of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ on big sheets of card comes from. You know the one.