Most rock documentaries do a great job of showing you how the music that has transformed your life came into being. Some focus on one artist, while others pull together the key players from a particular a scene, record label or recording studio. And there’s almost always a sequence where some of the people who recorded a great song gather around a mixing console to raise and lower different bits, and explain how it was recorded.
That’s most rock documentaries, and they’re great. However, some other truly remarkable films have been made about musicians, that seek to tell such a compelling tale that the music under discussion appears to be entirely different after the telling. Most often they’re about bands or singers that aren’t a deeply embedded part of everyday life, so their anecdotes aren’t worn thin from overselling. Yet these under the radar stories are often the most astonishing you’ll hear.
Or, as is the case with the first of our selection, they tell an unfamiliar story about an overfamiliar band, offering fresh perspective on the lives of the musicians and entourages you thought you knew…
1. Good Ol’ Freda (2013)
Freda Kelly was the secretary of the Beatles official fan club from their days playing the Cavern in Liverpool until the band split up in 1970. She stayed in Liverpool while the entire Beatles organization moved down to London, becoming an invaluable bridge between the biggest pop band in the world and their families and friends back home, as well as being the fans’ voice on the inside. The tales of her securing fan souvenirs (always genuine, never faked) are proof of her own abiding passion for the band, and once the group split up and the fan club was disbanded, she returned to her normal life and didn’t really speak publicly about her experiences until 2013. This is her story, with a little help from her friends, like Ringo.
2. Dig! (2004)
This is a tale that Shakespeare would’ve had a field day with. Two 1990s friends with twin 1960s obsessions form bands along broadly similar lines. Anton Newcombe leads a psychedelic collective called the Brian Jonestown Massacre, which he runs with a brutally eccentric hand, breaking up gigs by arguing with band members onstage and becoming ever more truculent and provocative, while pursuing his muse with exceptional intensity and little commercial success. He’s considered a genius by almost everyone in the story. The other, the film’s narrator Courtney Taylor, is inspired by his friend to form the Dandy Warhols, who are almost immediately signed and start releasing hit records. The intense relationship between these two bands and the juxtaposition of their relative levels of success, is what makes this such a compelling watch. That plus tambourine player Joel Gion‘s outrageous sideburns.
3. Amy (2015)
Another tale with Shakespearian depths, Amy explains the dark forces at work which conspired to deprive the world of Amy Winehouse, not the least of which is Amy herself. We see how her life informs her songs, how expressive a lyricist she was and how she turned to music to heal her pain — a situation which became unbearable when the release of her second album Back to Black made her a household name. Throw into the mix volatile relationships with both her father and her boyfriend, problems with substance abuse, and the ever growing demands of the press and her fanbase, and a picture emerges of a very isolated young woman indeed. It’s a heartbreaking watch, particularly for anyone interested in the toxic side of celebrity culture.
4. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009)
This is a tale of friendship and devotion, of two buddies who formed a metal band as kids — Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb “Not THAT Rob Reiner” Reiner — and nearly made the big time, but didn’t. Undeterred, they keep the band going while holding down menial jobs and against the best advice of their friends and family, who are all watching the years go by and wondering when they’ll grow up. But this isn’t the kind of film where dreams get crushed. It’s the kind of film where the boys get the band back together and go on tour in Europe, only to find their path to the top is steeper than ever. Farcical moments abound, with shady gig promoters and unattended gigs, but nothing dims either their drive to keep going, or threatens the pact they made as kids: to keep on rocking.
5. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2012)
Not all friendships can withstand the creative process, and that’s the sadness at the heart of this film. This is perhaps the most orthodox rockumentary on our list, in that A Tribe Called Quest were a hugely influential and successful band with a lot of fans whose story is told here with great clarity and affection, with a traditional structure that takes in success, failure, fallout and redemption. However, Beats, Rhymes & Life also shows four men — Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White — who struggle to remain in each others’ company at times. And for whom the dream of their group is something to both aspire to and escape from.
6. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)
Daniel Johnston‘s songs are charming and evocative rough diamonds, often run off to a cassette recorder in the music room of his parents’ house, and presented to the world on another cassette with a hand-drawn sleeve. His story is one in which his creative accomplishments — tons of songs, drawings and paintings — are partly driven by his shaky mental health, and partly obliterated by it. But any romantic sense of the creative process, any idea that there is be a fine line between genius and madness, is sharply driven from the screen by the footage of his parents, who have diligently cared for their son through some extremely harrowing times. This is especially apparent in the scene where Daniel’s father tearfully recounts flying his son back home in the family light aircraft, only to have the joystick wrested from him and Daniel deliberately crash the plane, nearly killing them both.
7. The Punk Singer (2014)
It’s the blessing of some artists to find that their voice comes to represent a stifled audience’s need to speak, and that’s particularly true of Kathleen Hanna. Her intelligence and belligerence as a feminist artist lead her first to form the inspirational punk band Bikini Kill, then dance-punkers Le Tigre, and to help create the self-sustaining Riot Grrrl movement, which challenged the all-boys-together exclusive machismo of music, journalism and the media. A totemic figure to young feminists, she seemed invincible, but had to down tools in 2005 after contracting Lyme disease. Now back in action with her new band The Julie Ruin, she tells her story with brutal frankness, but infectious excitement too.
8. Dr. Feelgood: Oil City Confidential (2013)
All of Julian Temple‘s rockumentaries are terrifically watchable. His signature style is to blend thematically useful archive footage from movies and TV — which gives everything a sense of context and tone — with unusual interview footage. All the members of the Sex Pistols, whose story he told in his celebrated documentary The Filth and the Fury, were shot in near darkness, as if they had to keep their identities secret. But with Wilko Johnson of British pub rockers Dr. Feelgood, he found his perfect subject. Erudite and poetic, a natural mythmaker, Wilko’s nasal Essex twang automatically leavens his most pretentious asides with charm, and his tales of forming his hardboiled R&B band in the prog rock early ’70s are interspersed with old black and white gangster movies, to underline the point that they looked more like petty criminals than musicians. The story of their rise and fall, and Wilko’s expulsion from the band after one row too many with singer Lee Brilleaux, is told with underdog charm and underworld menace.
9. 20 feet from Stardom (2013)
There are a handful of excellent documentaries devoted to the backroom musicians who played on some of popular music’s greatest songs. Standing in the Shadows of Motown brought back together the session players who created the bulk of the music on Motown’s hits, Muscle Shoals looks at both the players and studio that created soul hits for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge, and The Wrecking Crew looks at the work of Los Angeles’ greatest session musicians, who worked with everyone from the Beach Boys to the Monkees. However, the best is 20 Feet from Stardom, which looks at some of popular music’s greatest backing singers, and how their contributions brought songs to life. There’s a key scene in which Mick Jagger assesses Merry Clayton‘s howling contribution to “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, in the clear knowledge that she’d set his song on fire. But as well as celebrating their background work, this film also shows how far backing singers have to travel to become the main attraction.
10. Searching For Sugar Man (2012)
One of the greatest untold stories in rock music, Searching For Sugar Man, not only tells the musical story of long-forgotten singer and songwriter Rodriguez, it unravels long-held myths. His status as a superstar in South Africa is the fuel in the tank, as is the commonly-held belief among his fans there that he had died. In fact, he’s found alive and well, and surprisingly sanguine about the various ups and downs of his life. In an echo of the Anvil story, it’s the making of the documentary that changes his life again, not only revealing his existence to ardent fans who believed he was long gone, but explaining to him the remarkable distances his music had traveled.
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