For who knows how many years now there has been a neverending debates about what is rock music and what is not, and what influenced rock and what didn’t, and somehow, the films that are trying to explore any form of modern pop music or use its cultural elements are almost always involved in the debate. And then the debates take on another dimension – did the music influence the films and modern culture or is it the other way around?
What we get in the end is the chicken and the egg ‘controversy’ that has no end. That is why the films that are discussed below can fall into many other categories but there is certainly a thread that connects them all – they all share a connection with rock or some other musical genre directly connected to it. And of course there is another thread that connects them all – they are excellent viewing, representing all that is good (and often what is bad) in modern (rock) music and culture.
Documentaries and Concerts Galore
Capturing live music just by recording on the stage can be fun, particularly if the music is good, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a good viewing experience, unless it involves some cultural or biographical background (intentionally or unintentionally). Oftentimes music documentaries are aimed squarely at their respective fandoms, but there’s quite a few that should be viewed from a much wider cultural perspective. Here are some that should be essential viewing:
Don’t Look Back
D.A. Pennebaker, 1967
The number of documentaries covering Bob Dylan, his music, and career are growing by the day, with Martin Scorsese often topping the list with two of his own – No Direction Home and more recently, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. Still, Pennebaker’s film digs deep into the key change in Dylan’s music from ‘pure folk’ into something wider and ‘more mutant’, but also covers aspects of Dylan’s relationship with media, fans, and his personal life and visions.
Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music
Michael Wadleigh, 1970
By chance, Scorsese is involved in this one too (as one of the cinematographers), but that is a minor point, as this movie got its own separate life beyond the legend that is the Woodstock festival. It plays on two levels, as a recording of some incredible (and not so incredible) music, but also as a recording of a cultural striking point from the standpoint of the festival organizers, participants and visitors, and bystanders.
Albert & David Maysles, 1970
The flip side of the Woodstock coin, or more precisely, the end of the hippie dream. Recording The Rolling Stones 1969 US tour and the concluding concert at Altamont, the Maysles brothers record all that surrounds it – including a violent death of a spectator at the hands of Hells Angels who were officially engaged as the concert security. But the whole film and the scene selection speaks volumes, like the one when due to oncoming riots, The Grateful Dead were not given a chance to play, with the puzzled Jerry Garcia, summing it up unintentionally: “But… we just wanna play, man!”
Mel Stuart, 1973
This one can certainly be embroiled in the rock/not rock debate, but the way it captures a slice of a cultural moment and some of the most captivating soul music around is quite essential. The LA Watts riots of 1972 seem to be looming in the background, with Richard Pryor’s spoken pieces being the non-musical icing on the cake.
The Filth and the Fury
Julien Temple, 2000
And then there was punk. Or in the case of this movie, The Sex Pistols, hailed as the progenitors of the genre, even if they actually were not. But the film goes deeper into social and cultural aspects that gave rise to British punk of the late ’70s, including some excellent footage of the band’s attempt to crash the Queen’s Jubilee and their now-notorious TV appearance.
The Decline of Western Civilization I-III
Penelope Spheeris, 1981 & 1988
This film trilogy covering the LA punk, metal, and connected rock scenes, also dives deep into other social aspects connected to these rock genres and earned Spheeris the title of ‘rock and roll anthropologist.’
The Last Waltz & Stop Making Sense
Martin Scorsese, 1978 // Jonathan Demme, 1984
Both of these are excellent concert representation with some excellent music, that go on to make a rule that it takes some great directors who are at the same time big fans of the music they are recording to come up with some great music documentary footage.