To celebrate the release of new documentaries about two of our fave artists – Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth and Big Star’s Nothing Can Hurt Me – Gigslutz presents ten of the most captivating films to explore the stories behind the music…
1. Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)
The Rolling Stones have been the subject of numerous documentaries in the fifty-odd years they’ve been together. This document of their 1969 US tour, leading up to the disastrous free concert at Altamont, is easily the most harrowing. The film begins cheerily enough with a performance of Jumpin’ Jack Flash in New York (Mick: “Charlie’s good tonight, innee?”) before fast forwarding to the announcement of Meredith Hunter’s tragic death at Altamont at the hands of the Hells Angels who’d been hired as security for the event. (Imagine the Sons of Anarchy policing the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury to get an idea of how ludicrous this was.) During performances from the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane, fights break out between members of the audience and the openly hostile Hells Angels. By the time the Stones come on the Angels are issuing beatings to anyone attempting to get onto the stage, and despite the band’s pleas for them to “cool it”, the acts of violence continue. The horrific scene where Hunter is stabbed to death serves as a visual monument to the moment the 60’s dream turned sour and died.
2. Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (Taylor Hackford, 1987)
To celebrate his idol Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday with a couple of gigs, Keith Richards put together a stellar line-up featuring musical luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Robert Cray, Etta James and Johnnie Johnson. Oh, and John Lennon’s kid, Julian. The two concerts at the Fox Theatre in St Louis were recorded for posterity by director Taylor Hackford, but it’s the rehearsal footage that makes this film worth viewing. During a painful-to-watch stop/start run-through of ‘Carol’, Chuck and Keith argue about the guitar sound, causing the writer of ‘Johnny B Goode’ to lose his rag and berate the Stones guitarist: “Leave the amp as I set it! That’s my amp and I’m setting it the way I wish it… If it winds up on the film that’s the way Chuck Berry plays it! You understand?!” The scowl on Keith’s face says it all; he looks at his hero like he’s about to smash him over the head with his guitar. Fortunately, the two reconcile, the shows are a success and Keith’s love for Chuck remains: “He gave me more headaches than Mick Jagger, but I still can’t dislike him.”
3. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (Penelope Spheeris, 1988)
The second part of a trilogy depicting the seedy underbelly of life in Los Angeles focuses on the city’s heavy metal scene from 1986–1988. Featuring live footage and interviews from legends of the metal world (including Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Megadeth, Motörhead and Ozzy Osbourne) the film focuses on the usual sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll clichés, as well as Big Issues like censorship, fame and moral responsibility. As you might expect from such a hedonistic bunch, their tales of rock ‘n’ roll excess are perfectly framed to shock middle America, though not remotely surprising to anyone familiar with the sort of antics and mischief that metal bands get up to on the road and in the studio. One notable scene features an intoxicated Chris Holmes from W.A.S.P. pouring ‘vodka’ (though this is, allegedly, actually water) down his throat in a swimming pool as his mum looks on, half-bemused, half entertained. Fortunately, the no-nonsense Lemmy is on hand with some handy advice for any budding metallers: “If you think you got what it takes, shove it out, run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it.”
4. The Filth and the Fury (Julien Temple, 2000)
After making the disappointing mockumentary The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, director Julien Temple had unfinished business with the Sex Pistols. Combining archive footage of the band, clips from 70s television programmes and contemporary interviews with the original members, Temple gives the Pistols a documentary that does justice to their achievements and legacy. As well as revealing the band’s origins and tracing their musical influences, the film paints a vivid picture of British society in the mid–1970s, and shows how the disenfranchisement of youth and naff popular culture helped to spark the punk movement. From the expletive ridden television interview with Bill Grundy that caused shock and outrage in 1976, to the band’s demise following their final show at the Winterland Ballroom in 1978, John Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock reflect on the seminal moments in the Pistols’ brief history and set the record straight. Often humorous, occasionally moving, always entertaining, The Filth and the Fury eschews sentimentality and remains true to the spirit of punk rock. Discussing the controversy surrounding ‘God Save the Queen’, Steve Jones is wonderfully candid: “I don’t think what he was singing was outrageous. He’s not saying ‘let’s kill her’ or ‘let’s fuck her.’ He was pretty much pointing out what the truth was.”
5. Standing in the Shadows of Motown (Paul Justman, 2002)
Even if you haven’t heard of the Funk Brothers, I’d wager good money that you’ve heard them before. As Motown’s in-house studio band from 1959–1973 they played on dozens of the label’s greatest hits, including records by Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and numerous others. Until the release of this documentary (and the book by legendary bassist James Jamerson it’s based on) this group of session musicians – and the role they played in creating the Motown sound – had been marginalised. In Paul Justman’s film the Funk Brothers get to tell their story via amusing anecdotes and dramatic recreations of some of the seminal moments in the classic soul label’s history. Hand-picked by Motown founder Berry Gordy, these influential players produced more hit songs than the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys combined. As producer Steve Jordan points out: “When these cats cut tracks, it really… No offence to any of the great artists that sang on them, but anybody could have sung on ’em. You could’ve had Deputy Dawg singing some of this and it would be a hit, because the tracks were so incredible. They were musical entities unto themselves.”
6. Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop (John Dower, 2003)
The phenomenon that was Britpop was to some extent the antithesis of punk in the 70s or rave in the late-80s and early-90s: derivative, reverential, and less concerned with facilitating social change or railing against the Establishment (lest we forget the stomach-turning image of Noel and Tony in No. 10). That said, it was huge fun, and the people responsible for its best moments were a fuck sight more interesting than the mediocre cretins who pass for pop stars these days. John Dower’s documentary looks at the landmark albums and events that shaped Britpop via interviews with its key players. The Gallagher Brothers are loquacious as ever, from Noel’s frank assessment of Be Here Now (“It’s the sound of a bunch of guys on coke in the studio not giving a fuck”) to Liam being befuddled by the meaning of the word androgynous (“What does that mean? I’m a bird?”). Damon Albarn is more withdrawn, hiding behind a ukulele and clearly still bruised by the whole experience. The best quips come from Jarvis Cocker, including this little gem on how he dealt with fame: “I was just a mess… taking drugs doesn’t help. That never helps in a situation. You don’t often hear people saying, ‘Oooh, since he’s been taking them drugs he’s such a nice person. He’s really come out of his shell, he’s really nice. He’s blossomed.’”
7. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, 2004)
There’s a perverse pleasure to be had in watching a band you once adored but now find fairly loathsome fall apart (multi-millionaires suing their own fans for downloading music for free from Napster is both mean and uncool). In Some Kind of Monster we get to witness Metallica implode on camera – and what a treat it is. After bassist Jason Newsted quits the band and frontman James Hetfield enters rehab to rid himself of various addictions, Metallica’s management decide to hire a performance-enhancing coach to help the band confront and address the breakdown in their personal relationships with one another. At the same time the band enter the studio to record their new album – what could possibly go wrong? Everything. As tensions that have been building for more than 20 years come to the surface, Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett are encouraged to be honest with one another, resulting in much soul-searching and Spinal Tap-esque catharsis. Seeing the macho and hubristic Hetfield (a man who hunts animals for sport) play the contrite sinner is an unsettling, yet rewarding, experience, not dissimilar to seeing the school bully get his comeuppance: “All the drinking and all the other junk that I was stuck in… It was so predictable. So boring.” A bit like Metallica these days, then.
8. Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2008)
In 1984 Canadian group Anvil headlined the Super Rock Festival in Japan with Scorpions, Whitesnake and Bon Jovi. Yet while these three bands went on to sell millions of records, Anvil faded into obscurity. Ostensibly, this is a documentary about a forgotten heavy metal band attempting to reconnect with the reasons why they make music, and rediscover their mojo as they approach the twilight of their middle age. Look deeper and you’ll find a film that explores what it means to hang on to your dreams and stay true to your art when faced with critical indifference and commercial failure. Director Sacha Gervasi (a long-time fan and former roadie for the band) follows frontman Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner as they take a break from their day jobs to embark on a disastrous European tour that pushes the childhood friends to breaking point. In a final roll of the dice Kudlow borrows $13,000 from his sister to fund the recording of the band’s 13th studio album, an experience that puts the future of the group in jeopardy once more. Frequently amusing, often touching, and undeniably charming, The Story of Anvil is a heart-warming tale of a band that refused to give up on its dreams.
9. Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012)10. Beware of Ginger Baker (Jay Bulger, 2012)Ginger Baker is the greatest drummer in the world. He’s also a moody, cantankerous old git. Director Jay Bulger struck up a friendship with the legendary sticksman, even moving from the US to live with him on his fortified compound in South Africa (the film’s title is taken from a sign hanging outside). Former band mates and musicians including Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, John Lydon, Nick Mason and Lar Ulrich are effusive with their praise for the erratic drummer, although those who’ve played with him acknowledge that his genius comes at a cost: he’s an absolute nightmare to work with. Ginger himself is full of great anecdotes, and though he seems rather put out at being asked to talk about his life and experiences, isn’t shy of making his true feelings known. On playing with the young Mick Jagger: “This effeminate looking kid got up and sung one number and I’m going, ‘Jack who’s this stupid little cunt? What’s he doing here?’ Jack and I used to put some jazz things in, completely throw him off. I mean I was a hardcore junkie at the time, so I just terrified the shit out of him.”
Honourable mentions: Biggie & Tupac (Nick Broomfield, 2002), I’m Rick James (Perry Santos, 2009), George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese, 2011), The Stone Roses: Made of Stone (Shane Meadows, 2013), Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (2014)
9. Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012)
At the beginning of the 70s, American folk musician Sixto Rodriguez made two albums which, although well received critically, were about as popular as Ebola. He then disappeared into obscurity and the record-buying public forgot about him. However, although virtually unknown in his native country, Rodriguez’s songs, unbeknownst to him, were hugely popular in Apartheid-era South Africa, where he was bigger than Elvis Presley. Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-winning film follows the story of two South African fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, who in the late-90s set out to uncover the man behind the myth. Did he really commit suicide by setting himself alight onstage during a performance? Is there any substance to the rumour that he’d died following a drug overdose? In their quest to discover what became of their hero, Segerman and Strydom travel halfway across the globe from Cape Town to Detroit to meet the family and friends of the mysterious Rodriquez. “What he’s demonstrated, very clearly, is that you have a choice”, says Rick Emmerson. “He took all that torment, all that agony, all that confusion and pain, and he transformed it into something beautiful.”
10. Beware of Ginger Baker (Jay Bulger, 2012)
Ginger Baker is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll drummer of all time. He’s also a moody and cantankerous old bastard prone to fits of rage and violence. To make this film, director Jay Bulger struck up a friendship with the legendary sticksman, even moving from the US to live with him on his fortified compound in South Africa (the film’s title is taken from a sign hanging outside). Former band mates and musicians including Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, John Lydon, Nick Mason and Lars Ulrich are effusive with their praise for the erratic drummer, although those who’ve played with him also acknowledge that his genius comes at a cost: he’s an absolute nightmare to work with. Ginger himself is full of great anecdotes, and though he seems rather put out at being asked to talk about his life and experiences, isn’t shy of making his true feelings known. On playing with the young Mick Jagger: “This effeminate looking kid got up and sung one number and I’m going, ‘Jack who’s this stupid little cunt? What’s he doing here?’ Jack and I used to put some jazz things in, completely throw him off. I mean I was a hardcore junkie at the time, so I just terrified the shit out of him.”
Honourable mentions: Biggie & Tupac (Nick Broomfield, 2002), I’m Rick James (Perry Santos, 2009), George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese, 2011), The Stone Roses: Made of Stone (Shane Meadows, 2013), Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (Florian Habicht, 2014)