What makes the best music documentary? Perhaps the greatest rockumentary that never was, This is Spinal Tap comes close – an excruciatingly human view of what life must be like inside a band as personalities clash, unexpected situations arise and mistakes are made.
Spinal Tap never existed of course, but this spoof biopic out-officed The Office nearly twenty years before Ricky Gervais re-established the genre.
What makes such imaginary tales work is just how closely they compare to reality. According to a review of critics’ top music documentaries from online music site musicMagpie, there’s no room for well-polished puff pieces.
Topping the list is Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster, which tells the band’s story over two post-millennium years, notably during the making of the album St Anger. The tensions are palpable, particularly with the band’s therapist in the mix. A serious look at the price of success and the dangers of getting too used to the high life, at the same time as exploring the creative pot-boiler of being in a band. That the album went on to win a Grammy begs the question, was it all worth it?
Despite these pressures, for many performers success comes from hard work, with bands sometimes spending many years in the wilderness before they hit the big time. Succeeding in the music business requires not only raw talent but stamina and there are no guarantees, as illustrated by The Story of Anvil. Made by a long-time fan, this film follows Anvil’s 2005 experiences touring Europe to half-empty concert halls. Ironically, the band achieved more fame following the release of the film than it had experienced in the previous three decades.
A band whose sustained success Anvil could only dream of is the Rolling Stones, and their seminal documentary Gimme Shelter is lauded as a pioneer of the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ genre. Rockumentaries don’t get much more gritty than this, following the negotiations building up to the Altamont Free Concert and then the performance itself, notorious due to the stabbing of an audience member by one of the Hell’s Angels brought in as security.
From the same era (and himself still going strong) is Bob Dylan. Out of the two documentaries that make the cut, the jury’s out as to which is the best. Either 1967’s Don’t Look Back which captures the mood of the times, when even folk rock was seen as anti-establishment. Or Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, released in 2005 but based on Dylan’s career in the early 1960s.
From two films about one artist, to one about two bands – Dig, which covers the rivalry between the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. This biopic widens its scope to illustrate the tensions existing not only between band members, but also between bands in the wider context of the music business. A master-class in how close bands can get to having it all, yet still walk away with nothing.
So, there we have it. While many thousands of music documentaries have been produced over the years (and plenty have flopped – look how many people buy them and only then to sell DVDs online) it’s the ones that draw back the curtain and present the all-too-fragile side of our heroes that continue to resonate. Special mention from the critics goes to The Fearless Freaks (about The Flaming Lips), Standing in the shadows of Motown (The Funk Brothers), The Future is Unwritten (Joe Strummer) and Kurt and Courtney. All of which go to prove that however celebrity-oriented our society gets, the back-stories remain as human as they come.