Jan 062015

The Big Star documentary was the one I had the biggest attitude about ever watching. “The last thing I need to watch,” I’d been saying to myself since its release, “is a bunch of Big Star fanboys raving over their particular favorite album and how much it meant to them and how terrible it was that they never made it and how great Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” is and how much all of it made REM possible!” Nevertheless, the documentary sat in my queue since the summer. Despite a dearth of live footage or rare recordings of the band, despite brief commentary by Ira Kaplan, despite a segment hailing the beauty of “I Am the Cosmos” I loved this documentary. The chorus of fanboy critics and musicians salivating over what made Big Star special to them made me recall what makes Big Star special to me. As I watched this film and heard arguments for and against the direction (or lack thereof) of each of the band’s 3 albums, I thought back to all the times me and my friends felt like the only people in the world who knew those albums existed. The film was just critical enough about each of the band’s characteristic shortcomings to make the “discussion” feel real and meaningful. The only thing missing were scenes in which all the fanboys (and even fangirls) got together to hash out their differences and rejoice in what it all meant to them. If only the filmmakers could have put together another music writers convention in Memphis, like the one that was organized by Big Star’s management, in large part, to introduce the band to its target audience.

Despite my reservations about spending 90 minutes with a crotchety old Levon Helm likely bitching about Robbie Robertson and hacking out his remaining lungs, I jumped right on the Helm documentary when I first saw it on Netflix last summer. Then, 5 minutes into it, I knew I didn’t have the stomach to watch one of my original rock heroes be miserable on camera. On one of the first days of 2015, however, emboldened by my surprising love of the Big Star doc, I hit “Resume play” and watched the remaining 85 minutes. Except for the occasional scenes trying to frame the Band’s history and legacy for Helm’s hoped-for acceptance, this documentary made Ginger Baker and his miserable documentary seem chipper. Many moons ago I had a dream about meeting a broken-down, junked-out version of the Band backstage at some shit-hole bar they were playing. It was a really depressing dream, the kind you wake up sobbing from. The Helm documentary confirmed that nightmare, but minus the empathy that I got from my dream state.

Finally, I watched Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary on back-up singers that my old group of friends first raved about at a gathering much earlier in 2014, or maybe even our 2013 New Year’s Eve get-together. This doc came up again at this year’s New Year’s Eve hangout, so I decided to call it up on my Netflix queue and settle in. I had a bad attitude about this one, too. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of harmonies and background singing. I figured, at best, I’d get some chuckles over scenes of background singers cupping an ear while harmonizing. That image never fails to elicit a laugh. Instead, this documentary was done with much more style than I’d expected. After quickly dissing all white background singers and making it clear that only black women would be worthy of this documentary (despite the constant presence of a white backing singer among Sting’s crew and a big white guy who was purported to be a backing singer for James Taylor), the film actually told a cogent tale of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and a handful of other women whose contributions we’d all know, if not their names. Even the story of the humble backing singer whose entry scared me the most—some woman given free reign to scat over any Sting song (not to mention the Stones’ modern-day touring version of Clayton)—turned out to be fairly gripping. There was great footage of these people in action with the likes of Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, and David Bowie. I’m disappointed that the story of not a single guy backing singer was included (and that white backing singers like the Jordanaires were completely dismissed), but hey, what were the odds I was going to sit down and watch any movie on backing singers? The filmmaker kept focus and made a lot more of the subject than I could have imagined possible, especially considering that the singers slung almost no dirt whatsoever regarding their employers.


  20 Responses to “Catching Up on My Rock Docs”

  1. BigSteve

    I think I watched all three of these in short order myself, a few months back when I first got Netflix streaming. If you haven’t seen the Muscle Shoals one, I recommend that too.

    My reactions to these three films pretty much mirrors yours. Twenty Feet played at my neighborhood arthouse for weeks, and I couldn’t be bothered, but they made a decent film out of it. The Levon film isn’t always a lot of fun, but I admired its unflinching look at the man more than I enjoyed it. The title says it all.

    It’s funny, but I remember next to nothing about the Big Star film, though I recall liking it well enough while I was watching it. I guess I know enough about the back story already, and as you say there’s nothing startlingly new here. I think all I need to know is right there in the grooves, I mean the ones and zeroes, of the albums.

    Although it somewhat fits into that same category, I recommend Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, which has been on HBO recently. It really does have film I’ve never seen before, but, like the biography I read recently (The One by RJ Smith) it tells you a lot about the man but doesn’t get you any closer to the music. It’s like a miracle that cannot be explained. One good thing about the HBO doc is that its focus is on “the rise,” so it spends almost no time on his painful fall from grace.

  2. I saw that Muscle Shoals one. That was rock solid, if not quite spectacular. True what you say about the unflinching nature of the Levon doc. Plus that Larry guy (his guitarist/guide through that period of his career [was he a key Dylan sideman, too?]) shines.

    Thanks for that tip about the James Brown doc. I had no idea that existed. I don’t get HBO. I’ll have to track that one down!

  3. misterioso

    Thanks for the reviews. Still, your positive response to the Big Star doc is not enough to dispel my sense that the last thing I need to make me recall what makes Big Star special to me is the chorus of fanboy critics and musicians. All I really need are the records. I did, however, recently read Rob Jovanovic’s book on Big Star, which was pretty good and informative. Given the lack of period footage of the band, it doesn’t seem to me there’s anything the documentary can give me that the book didn’t, other than irritation.

    I have been dying to see the JB doc but don’t have HBO. By the way: has anyone ever been better served by compilations than JB? I mean, his albums are all over the place, shattershot, crazy. But if you stack up Roots of a Revolution, Foundations of Funk, Funk Power, and Make It Funky, not to mention Star Time, you’ve got about twenty years’ worth of stunning material.

  4. cliff sovinsanity

    Liked both Big Star and 20 Feet, but wished I liked them more.

    Got a chance to watch Good Ol’ Freeda which documents Beatles Fan Club president Freda Kelly. Nothing groundbreaking here, but it was a pleasant perspective from a person in the Beatles circle who was also a devotee. Her drive in maintaining her position as the president was quite surprising for a woman of her age in that era.

    Also enjoyed the documentaries on Lemmy and the one on Ginger Baker which has already been discussed here.

    This spring Denny Tedesco’s documentary The Wrecking Crew finally gets it’s commercial release.

  5. ladymisskirroyale

    Yup, saw the Big Star, 20 Feet From Stardom and Freeda documentaries: enjoyed all of them, not “rocked” by any of them. The Ginger Baker documentary was interesting (it gave me a greater appreciation of his talent) but depressing. But nothing can be as depressing as that Pixies documentary, “Loud, Quiet, Loud” which we saw a couple of years back. (Geez, a juggler, for crying out loud!)

    We also recently watched “Beautiful Noise,” a documentary about the 80’s-90’s shoe gaze movement. Some good interviews with folks, especially those shy about talking on camera (Jim Reid, Kevin Shields, I’m talking to you) and some good concert footage. All the interviewed bands also heralded The Cocteau Twins, which was nice to, um, hear. I also appreciate the acknowledgement of the inclusion of so many female musicians in that movement (thanks for being interviewed Deb Goodge) But I got the sense that the folks who made the film (and financed it on Kickstarter) ran out of money and just hurriedly finished it off.

  6. I’ve recently watched the Big Star, Ginger Baker, and the Muscle Shoals docs. Mostly enjoyed them all.

    I did finally watch a 3 hour Yes documentary DVD that a band mate gave me for a gift a while back. I got the complete history of the band and its various lineups WITH ALMOST NO MUSIC! I imagine the production didn’t pay for the music rights!?!?!

    I saw an endless parade of talking heads – the band members and also a journalist to kind of tie the interviews all together.


  7. I love Rock Docs. I’ll even watch docs on bands I hate if it has some sort of tie-in to someone I like or particular time period. The ones I have seen most recently:

    It’s Slade – a BBC doc which is up on YouTube. It was a pretty great and funny doc with some great footage of their “skinhead” look which I had never seen.

    Filmage – A documentary on Descendents. This is a band that has the same effect on me that listening to Big Star or Pet Sounds has on me so it was great to get some insight about the band that I didn’t know. Even though the doc was great and well done it had some flaws in it’s presentation and chronology.

    Sonic Highways – an 8 part documentary about music through the eyes of Dave Grohl. This was a great thing to watch even though it had no real clear subject. There were 8 recording studios in 8 cities used for the framing with interviews from musicians, producers and journalists who provided the history of each place. I give Dave credit for trying to articulate the impossible.

    The most confusing thing to me about Sonic Highways was the Foo Fighters. They would end up recording a song in these historic studios while interviewing these amazing producers and engineers, but then brought in an entire portable recording studio, complete with two 24 track tape machines for Butch Vig to record them on. …..it didn’t make any sense.

    I still recommend checking out Sonic Highways though.

  8. diskojoe

    I saw the Big Star documentary a couple of summers ago under highly unusual & groovy circumstances. It was playing in a small theater in Gloucester, MA which is above a used record shop (boy, I wish that could happen all the time!) & the chairs consisted of sofas & living room chairs which gave the place a rumpus room quality. After the movie was over, a bunch of local musicians, mostly employees of the said record store, played Big Star songs live.

    One thing I noticed is that many of the people who were featured in the documentary are now gone, like the head of Ardent, John Fry, the woman art director Carole, as well as Jim Dickerson & Alex Chilton

  9. And Andy Hummel – I forgot he died right after Chilton until it flashed up at the end.

  10. BigSteve

    Other docs available on Netflix streaming that I watched recently, though not all are recent films:

    The Weird World of Blowfly — the original rapper
    Upside Down: The Creation Records Story — I thought this one was really interesting
    Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) — I don’t really like Nilsson’s music, but the film was interesting, very sad though.
    Rhyme & Reason — a late 90s film that interviews various rappers. I know little about the genre, but hearing people talk about their art is always interesting.
    Last Days Here — a fairly ridiculous doc about a fairly ridiculous metal singer making a supposed comeback. I also found this sad, but I know some metal heads love them some Pentagram for some reason.
    A Band Called Death — black proto-punk band from Detroit. Very interesting.

    No more time for more rock docs now, since I’m deeply into watching all the episodes of Pee Wee’s Playhouse again.

  11. I saw that Wrecking Crew movie a few years ago and it was pretty good. Not spectacular but pretty good.

  12. I really liked 30 Feet and the Big Star movies but I turned off the Levon Helm movie after about 10 minutes. From what I gathered from the first 10 minutes, he’s a curmudgeon who lives in the country in NY and says folksy, world weary things every now and then. Did I miss anything? Did it go anywhere after that? I’m not sure why but the Ginger Baker movie was more interesting, maybe because I knew less about him.

  13. I came to the same conclusion re: your Levon vs Ginger movie assessments, and I didn’t enjoy the Ginger one to any extent.

  14. Let me second the Mr. Dynamite doc. A good pairing with the recently out on DVD Get On Up bio movie of JB.

    I also caught the Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes doc that was on HBO or Showtime. More interesting than I had anticipated but I’ll reserve other comments for a Basement Tapes thread to come (prompted by BigSteve’s nomination of that as a reissue of the year).

  15. ladymisskirroyale

    I enjoyed that Creation Records Story documentary as well.

  16. I’ll have to watch the Blowfly thing. Didn’t know there was a documentary about him.

  17. BigSteve

    I thought the New Basement Tapes album was much better than I expected it to be.

  18. How does it match up to the version of that material you remastered for me off various boots about 8 years ago?

  19. BigSteve

    “The New Basement Tapes” is the album a collection of artists (Elvis Costello, Jim James. etc.) made based on lyrics Dylan wrote but forgot about since the 60s. That’s what I meant was better than I thought it would be.

    Mr. Mod is talking about a selection I made from the old bootleg of the original basement sessions, and the tapes were in such bad shape that I had to work on them a lot to make them listenable. The answer is that the new release is MUCH better, because they had better versions of the original tapes to work from. Most people won’t need the full six-CD version that was released late last year, but there’s a two-disc version that would suit most people’s needs.

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