Music documentaries that make the theater sway
The big story this week, for both film and music fans alike, was the documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty,” which played at our very own Tampa Theatre on Tuesday night. The film is directed by “Almost Famous” and “Jerry Maguire” helmer Cameron Crowe and joins a long line of music documentaries that have been handled by very capable directors.
Following the formative years of the band, the documentary has received positive reviews from critics and fans alike, mostly for its visceral and intimate portrait of one of America’s most beloved rock bands.
With directors like Martin Scorsese also setting his sights on music documentaries with October’s “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” Scene & Heard takes a look back at the best music documentaries directed by big name talent.
“The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981)
Before Penelope Spheeris made a name for herself directing comedy hits such as “Wayne’s World” and “The Little Rascals,” she was busy extensively documenting the early-‘80s punk music scene that was on the verge of exploding in Los Angeles with “The Decline of Western Civilization.”
Seen by many as a paramount moment in punk subculture, “Decline” had ferocious performances by legendary acts like Black Flag, Germs and X. The documentary, which according to Spheeris was originally financed with the intention of being a pornographic film, has instead become a go-to reference guide for punk acts in the years since.
Spheeris followed up the acclaimed “Decline” with a sequel in both 1988 and 1998, each capturing current music trends that were just about to go mainstream. Nonetheless, both lacked the impact and vitality of the original.
“Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies” (1994)
It was “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips’ documentaries that initially caught the eye of Jason Reitman, son of “Road Trip” producer Ivan Reitman and future director of films such as “Juno.”
The elder Reitman recommended Phillips take the reins of his raunchy road comedy, feeling the subversive nature of Phillips’ documentaries such as “Frat House,” and especially “Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies,” could bring a new twist to the comedy formula.
“Hated,” a documentary chronicling the life of sadomasochistic punk icon GG Allin, is a fine example of Phillips’ subversive nature. While archival footage plays with the likes of Geraldo Rivera showing the public’s opinion of Allin as a threat to societal norms, Phillips convinces the audience that Allin was, in fact, an avant-garde artist operating on the very brink of sanity.
While Phillips’ comedies like “Old School” and “The Hangover” have come too close to the formula he tried to avoid at the start of his career, “Hated” stands as the work of a talented director with a singular and authoritative voice.
“Buena Vista Social Club” (1999)
Wim Wenders is the director of acclaimed films such as “Wings of Desire” and “Paris, Texas,” and while he may not have the name recognition of Scorsese or Phillips in America, outside of the states he is just as recognizable. In 1999, he directed “Buena Vista Social Club,” about aging Cuban musicians whose talents are tossed aside following Castro’s communist takeover in 1959.
The documentary follows these musicians on their way to a performance that’s been generated by a renewed interest in their style of traditional Cuban music. What starts as a small show later leads to the musicians performing at New York City’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.
Wenders observes these seemingly forgotten musicians in a way that’s as intimate as his best work, something on which both audiences and critics agreed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, as well as starting the successful solo careers of a few of the featured musicians.
“No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” (2005)
“The Departed” director Scorsese’s documentary on Bob Dylan isn’t as seminal as “Don’t Look Back,” which memorably documented Dylan on his 1965 concert tour of the United Kingdom, but it serves as a perfect entry point for both new Dylan fans and those well versed in the works of Robert Zimmerman.
Scorsese takes a broad look at Dylan’s impact on American popular culture, starting with his arrival in New York City in 1961 to his supposed retirement from touring in 1966. It’s a period that saw Dylan make the controversial transition from popular folk singer to eclectic rock musician.
Scorsese would go on to direct music documentaries like “Shine a Light” for The Rolling Stones, as well as the upcoming “George Harrison: Living in the Material World.” While the latter has yet to be seen, the former lacks what made “No Direction Home” an integral part of Dylan lore; Scorsese made a documentary that defined a man who has become engrained in the public consciousness as a symbol for so many things.