Reflecting on 2015, Part 2: The best music documentaries
January 4, 2016
Let’s start with the actually bad music documentary I saw this year. Even though it’s beautifully shot and the songs sound amazing (even in hacked up snippets), Arcade Fire’s The Reflektor Tapes is atrociously edited. The phenomenal group from Canada created an album full of songs that build on grooves. But before you can get into any musical moment in this film, there is a cutaway to something else. Making matters worse are the varied formats of framing. The film even jumps around in time with little rhyme or reason. Sometimes the audio doesn’t even match the performance. Director Kahlil Joseph simply betrays the music with a concern for panache over substance. Vincent Moon did it much better with Miroir Noir. Seek that out instead (purchase here).
Honorable mentions include Revenge of the Mekons, which actually came out a couple of years ago but only last year made its theatrical tour. I caught it at O Cinema Wynwood during a one-night only screening with only four other people attending, and — besides my partner — two of them turned out to be people I know from the music scene, so that says something about who The Mekons are in the world of music. Read my review of the film here: Revenge of the Mekons presents a portrait of a band whose success transcends fame and fortune. Also worth noting is the revealing documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which debuted via Netflix. It’s quite good, and director Liz Garbus does ultimate justice to Simone’s music by allowing full performances to play out as the story of her life is told with archival recordings and talking heads, including her daughter, who doesn’t hold back in sharing how difficult her relationship was with her activist/artist mother.
For the most part, this year, we got to know and understand the difficult line of existence that is the world of music and fame contrasted with musicians’ private lives out of the limelight. Simone was later diagnosed as manic-depressive as was Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin and Jaco Pastorious, all subjects in some of the year’s best music documentaries, whose tragic stories involved premature death. In a way, Simone was the strongest and indeed the feistiest of these subjects. It makes for an odd, sad connection between these excellent films, but these are sad exceptions of the music world in general. There are clearly happier stories that don’t make for compelling, sad stories. One of those more positive stories of recent music history debuted at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. The Record Man undeniably stands as the most uplifting of all the docs on this list. It had its world premiere at the festival with a rooftop party featuring guests like music legend George McRae, who introduced himself to me singing this song’s chorus.
But really, this was the year of the depressing music doc, reflecting on dead icons, their lives meticulously picked apart in retrospect with the cooperation of surviving family members who helped paint intimate portraits of the people behind the music. For more thoughts on these films, I have linked to my original reviews. If I didn’t get the chance to review them, I share a few thoughts. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the link provided, you will be financially supporting this blog.
Though, like all the subjects in these documentaries, Henry K. Stone has passed, this film is the most uplifting of the lot. I never thought disco music would make me smile as much as it did when it appears in this film. This was the music of my childhood, and it was great to see how a warehouse in Hialeah, Florida, became the source of an indelible movement in music. Director Mark Moormann offers a brilliantly paced stroll through Stone’s story as a music mogul that included the discovery of Harry Wayne Casey (of KC and the Sunshine Band).
The film that set the tone for the year of the grim music documentary reflecting on deceased musicians. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is an incredibly researched work, despite some contention by Cobain’s former friend in The Melvins, Buzz Osborne (read his review here). Director Brett Morgen had access to Cobain’s archives of tapes and recreated the man’s past, sometimes even using animation set to Cobain’s monologues. On a human level, it’s a hard film to watch. The home movies of Cobain as a precocious child slowly evolve into the home movies of the drug-addled man, and it’s a pitiful thing to observe.
Next up, a look at some of the year’s best albums and songs.