My thoughts on a couple of music documentaries:
Relatively recently, I watched Ron Howard’s documentary ‘The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years’ (2016). While the title is slightly cumbersome, it is accurate, because, with the exception of the first and last ten minutes, it only covers the period of 1963 to 1966 and focuses on the Beatles’ concert tours, mostly in the U.S. So you won’t learn anything about Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe, The Magical Mystery Tour, ‘Yellow Submarine’, the Beatles in India or Yoko Ono. Indeed, a dedicated Beatles fan probably won’t learn anything new from the film and will have seen most if not all of the concert footage. What’s new is that the sound has been remastered and the movie shows what a tight live band the Beatles were – even when they couldn’t hear themselves play because of the hysterically screaming audiences. I would recommend the film for anyone with a heightened interest in the Beatles or if you simply want to know what Beatlemania was all about. (7/10).
Another music documentary, which doesn’t cover the whole of an artist’s career, is noted documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney’s ‘Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown’ (2014). The film chronicles the rise of Soul Brother Number 1 from abject poverty to superstardom and acknowledges his enormous influence as well as his position as a community leader (until he politically embraced Richard Nixon!). It also doesn’t shy away from his spectacularly poor treatment of the great musicians, who were essential in creating the James Brown sound. Because the documentary doesn’t cover Brown’s later career from the early or mid 1970ies onwards, there is no mention of domestic violence, legal troubles and drug abuse. In contrast to the above-mentioned Beatles documentary, I think that this is a flaw, because ‘Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown’ is about an artist’s career and not just one aspect of it and it paints an incomplete picture of the person. The biopic ‘Get on Up’ does a better job in this respect. (5/10)
Completeness is not an end in itself, though, and Martin Scorsese’s ‘George Harrison: Living in the Material World’ (2011) isn’t just comprehensive about the Harrison’s career, at over three hours it’s also way too long. The first part is all about the Beatles, but takes an interesting perspective by focusing on the much-neglected Harrison. The second part is about his solo career, which, in my opinion, isn’t interesting enough to warrant roughly one and a half hours of running time, particularly when Scorsese obviously omits (or downplays) aspects of Harrison’s life, which don’t fit the portrayal of a very spiritual person, such as an interest in formula 1 car racing and cocaine abuse. (5/10)
Glossing over a musician’s less admirable traits isn’t unusual in rock music documentaries, though, and can also be found in two very interesting documentaries, I have seen in the past half year or so. The first is ‘Amy’ (2015) by Asif Karpadia, who also made the sports doc ‘Senna’, which I have already posted about. Like Karpadia’s film about the formula 1 champion driver, his documentary about British jazz/ soul pop singer Amy Winehouse consists exclusively of archive footage (with added voiceovers), which gives the movie an aura of veracity. This is also a problem with ‘Amy’, because it is clear that by means of omission and clever editing, you can give the footage a certain spin. While cursory research would suggest that Winehouse’s father and her ex-husband did indeed ride on her coattails for their own ends with little regard for her wellbeing, like the documentary suggests, it doesn’t chime with the film’s assertion that she was a strong-minded person. The insinuation that her eventual tragic end was in parts brought about by extreme pressure from her record company also makes her look more like a victim than she probably was. Still, it’s well worth watching (7/10)
The second rock star biopic documentary, which is promoting myth over facts, is ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ (2015). It is based on the diary entries of Nirvana’s front man, occasionally showing the written page and animating drawings and letters, which is visually interesting. There are animated bits as well as the usual stock footage and talking head interviews. While the documentary is visually inventive and good to watch, it unreservedly accepts his version of events (as written down in his diary) as the truth, although people have been contradicting some of the statements. There also is an interview with Courtney Love, in which she complains that social services intervened when her and Cobain’s daughter was born. I think that it is an omission on behalf of the filmmakers that this statement is shown unchallenged, because in a home video shown later in the movie, we see Cobain holding and nearly dropping his infant daughter while being stoned out of his head. Although the documentary tries to make Cobain look like a tortured artist-type, I thought that he came across as a rather pathetic person. Anyway, the film is worth watching for stylistic reasons alone. (6/10)