Screen-Shot-AMYI took in a decent amount of music documentaries in 2015. Most were great. Only one was terrible. And the one that caps this list will probably win the Oscar, and I wouldn’t disagree with its win.

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 FestivalThe 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.

5. Janis: Little Blue Girl


Read my review

4. The Record Man

Record Man poster

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).

3. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck

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.

2. Jaco


Read my review in “PureHoney Magazine”

1. Amy

amy poster

Read my review

Next up, a look at some of the year’s best albums and songs.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Her_poster_artWith Her, director Spike Jonze offers one of the strongest and most prescient films of his career. Using a delicate sense of humor and compassion, his fourth feature film ingeniously explores emotional territories perverted by the filter of technology to get to rather melancholy but profound truth. The film follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a recently separated man in a not too-distant but unspecified future who upgrades his operating system on his computer, which takes care of his calendar and runs his home by peeking into his emails and files on his hard drive or cloud. The OS happens to be gifted with the sound of a pleasant, smoky-voiced woman (Scarlett Johansson), who calls herself Samantha. As they get to know each other, the flesh and blood man and the disembodied voice grow closer. Could this intimacy really be love or some deranged level of madness symptomatic of humanity’s ever-growing reliance on computers?

It sounds eerie, but Jonze dives into the question with such a sensitive touch, the film never feels anything less than heartfelt. He never condescends to his characters— be they human or A.I.— or present them as anything less than beings yearning for a little intimate connection. Reminiscent to the delicate touch he used on his previous, criminally underrated, feature, Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze takes you by the hand and asks you to come along on this cinematic journey with as much tender attention he pays to the magic between the film’s two main characters’ blossoming connection.


The script by Jonze (a winner in last year’s Florida Film Critics Circle competition) offers loose-limbed, natural dialogue that focuses on feelings and affection instead of exposition. It doesn’t matter how far in the future the film takes place or how computing has evolved to this point. Jonze focuses on emotional connection, using the setting and circumstances to stay zeroed in on the transference between characters.

It helps that Jonze has some brilliant actors to work with. Phoenix elevates mild-mannered to elaborate heights of endearment. He never seems creepy or pathetic. You never pity him as he begins to fall for Samantha. She’s chipper and eager to please. Her choice of language is casual but warm in a sense that she cares about her tasks. His reactions to her statements are loaded with bemusement and surprise that double for both the blossoming odd relationship but also a curiosity about the mystery behind the silky voice whispering in his ear via a wireless earpiece.


As the film carries on, there are misunderstandings and attempts at growing intimacy that reveals their relationship as something complex, with varied degrees of longing between both of them, as if they are locked on an emotional see-saw. Many movie directors have clumsily tripped over themselves to present idealized notions of regular people falling in love, and the product is usually superficial. However, Jonze explores so many of the subtle nuances of these little connections, often only using deceptively simple dialogue, he keeps Her from devolving into some gimmick. The director never allows this seeming contrivance to get in the way of his experiment, which is as much about examining the growing bond between two people who were once strangers as it is about some of the deepest connections that defy flesh and blood and come from within the individual.

The film unfolds sometime in an unspecified future. Theodore has a job at a company called reciting letters for lovers, which are printed out in handwriting. This could be a funny joke if it did not feel so timely. It shows how disconnected humanity has become from its own experience of loving by presenting a world where love has been outsourced to a business. Human disconnectedness is everywhere in Her. In the background, most of the populace wander alone, looking out at the space before them with a distance in their eyes, seemingly talking to themselves, connected to another existence by a single, cordless earpiece. Though the film never specifies an era, it’s not far from what we are currently experiencing in public spaces with smart phones.


Jonze considers it all. Why do people seem to settle on unflattering high-waisted pants? Women scarcely wear makeup and bed head seems to be the “in” hairstyle among both genders. Arcade Fire’s spare soundtrack even reflects this sense of lack. The music features sighing organs, building toward a climax that never seems to arrive.

On a superficial level, Jonze establishes a beautiful world that seems a mix between Ikea rooms and children’s indoor playgrounds. An elevator features the shifting pattern of tree branches projected on the walls, as it climbs upward. The cubicles in Theodore’s office feature translucent walls in primary colors. It’s a comment on a state of further arrested development adults seem to go through in this future, as escaping more complex and ever-mysterious human relations seems to have become easier for this state of humanity. Theodore half-jokingly confesses to his friends that his evening conundrum is choosing between Internet porn and video games.


Of course these characters are aware of the special and difficult elements of falling in love, or at least the humans with “non-artificial intelligence,” as Samantha calls them, have such awareness. As Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) says, “Falling in love is like some socially acceptable form of insanity.” To Samantha, it’s a new experience, and she offers Theodore a playful, fresh innocence devoid of true consequences. Meanwhile, Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) is especially disgusted when Theodore confesses he is “dating” his computer. “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real,” she tells him upon hearing this revelation. That she and Theodore have baggage may be a burden, but it’s a reality in a world looking for more and more ways to escape reality. However, his workmates do not seem too upset, as it seems this phenomena of having a relationship with an OS is not uncommon in this world, and they go out on double dates together, getting to know Samantha just like any new girl to their world of friendship.


It’s a miracle that Jonze does not turn the movie into a freak show. Instead, he has brewed up a rather enthralling essay on loneliness and the role desire plays in the search for another being to fill that ever-present “empty” that informs desire. However, Jonze takes it to a higher level more akin to the notion of Lacan’s llamela, that, in simple terms, demonstrates how we all project ourselves in everything we desire, but those things or persons, ironically, can never truly complete us. It is especially associated with the libido and intimate relationships with others. It’s amazing how many examples of this appear in Her.

When Theodore goes on a blind date with a woman (Olivia Wilde), the two constantly seem to project on the other in a game of getting-to-know-you that reveals nothing about the other person (the credits fittingly name Wilde’s character as “blind date”). When they get buzzed on alcohol, she calls him a puppy dog and he calls her a tiger, but then he switches his animal to a dragon that could tear up a tiger… but won’t. It’s all rather clumsy and awkward, and when it comes to a decision to move somewhere beyond their self-involved banter, there’s little elsewhere for this man and woman to go— alone together.


The disconnection is both a frightening symptom of the escapist possibilities around them and also something that speaks to a rather innate characteristic that is the flawed human being, something unattainable by the artificial intelligence of Samantha. As she works on intuition, she feeds off Theodore’s information, which sometimes includes lies he tells himself, but can also come from the tone of his voice. We don’t know, and it does not matter. In the end, there is no other. It’s just a disembodied sense of self. It’s all there in the poster, Theodore’s mustachioed face and the lowercase word “her” underneath it.

Hans Morgenstern

Her runs 126 minutes and is rated R (language and brief moments of nudity). It opens pretty much everywhere in the U.S. today, Jan. 10. Warner Bros. Pictures sent me an awards screener for consideration in this contest.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

It was supposed to be an “Entertainment Weekly” exclusive premiere, and it even had an interview with Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, now it’s just an “error page.” Who knows why Arcade Fire’s new song, “Abraham’s Daughter,” written and recorded for the Hunger Games soundtrack was deleted from the Internet, but this is the Internet, people. Nothing can be deleted for good.

I found the mp3. Download it by clicking through here:

  Download mp3 of Abraham’s Daughter

The track is rather uneventful despite the hype (and, man, is the hype machine in high gear for everything Hunger Games). I doubt it will win over too many new fans. It’s a brooding little piece with string and hurdy-gurdy player Reginne Chassagne taking lead vocals. It seems to be all soft build-up to nothing … unless it serves as the prelude to the Kid Cudi song that follows it on the full soundtrack (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It certainly has the Arcade Fire style, but it sounds like filler. Devotees should love it just for the fact that it is now closing on two years since Arcade Fire released any new music since the Suburbs (Why Arcade Fire deserved that Grammy [February 14, 2011]).

Here are some comments from Butler on the song, which were part of EW’s now missing blog post:

On the theme of the song, he said, “Our whole approach was to get into the world and try to create something that serves the story and the film. There’s something in the story of Abraham and Isaac that I think resonates with the themes in the film, like sacrificing children. So we made a weird, alternate-universe version of that.”

On the writing of the song: “I tried to put myself in the headspace of how excited I’d be if this film was coming out when I was 15. I still remember hearing Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (for a Film)’ in [Baz Luhrmann’s] ‘Romeo + Juliet’ when I was that age.”

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Those on the Sigur Ros mailing list got a surprise video clip in their in-boxes yesterday from the preeminent rock band of Iceland. Lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Jón Þór Birgisson, aka Jonsi, had been busy the past couple of years on solo work, while the group he fronts seemed off in hibernation. Well, here they come, again:

Heralded with the four-letter Icelandic word Inni, turns out this indeed brings together the worlds of cinema and music, as this happens to be a teaser trailer for yet another Sigur Ros film. The project will have it’s premiere at Venice Days today, a self-described “autonomous section” of the Venice Film Festival. This new video document of Sigur Ros is directed by Vincent Morisset, who also brewed up the obscure Arcade Fire documentary Miroir Noir (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon ).

Guess what? Full live clips have been up on YouTube since March. Looks like it will look gorgeous on the big screen:

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Well, besides the fact this blog celebrates the Independent Ethos in music and occasionally film, it should come as no surprise to read my endorsement for Arcade Fire‘s Grammy win for album of the year. They are the only truly independent band on an independent label (Merge Records) to win the honor.

I had not planned to write about the Grammys at all, as it usually celebrates the contrived dreck that is pop music: from rock to disco. But the voters got my attention this morning.

Arcade Fire deserved the win for many reasons, and to those who call them “upsets” to crap like the music of Lady Antebelum, Lady Gaga and such: get some culture. They are true musicians making creative music with real instruments. Their energy live is unmatched and forgoes the distracting trappings of theatrics. Their music is creative while strongly rooted in rock (especially the progressive kind). Hence they have fans that span the ages from the current hipster youths, to respectable rock elders like David Bowie and Peter Gabriel.

So good for them. The Suburbs is a great album, as seen in my top 10 albums of 2010. OK, so it was not a personal fave of the year, as the exuberance of first hearing Arcade Fire via Funeral is a tough act to follow, but Arcade Fire are good enough to only measure against themselves. It’s all downhill from here. 😉

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Best records heard in 2010

December 30, 2010

I finally return just before 2010 ends, with a recap of the 10 best new records I heard this year (I probably spent too much time over-editing this post, but I also spent a lot of time catching up on tons of other albums that did not make the final cut below). I guess I should have finished this up before Christmas, as all the titles of the albums listed below link to, should you feel compelled to invest in these great albums. But, I’m not in this blogging thing for the money. Still, if you want any of these on vinyl, I would suggest you do it sooner than later anyway, as some LP records, unlike their CD or mp3 cousins, only get limited runs.

Without further ado…1. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening (DFA/Virgin)
Not just the best album I heard the year, but one of the best I have heard in many years. LCD Soundsystem seemed to have merged an array of my favorite musical ingredients, including Krautrock, post punk, David Bowie and prog. The sometimes lengthy songs on This is Happening never relent, riding infectious, poly-rhythmic beats to some transcendent place in music well-rooted in the best of the rock ‘n’ roll canon.

2. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest (4AD)
There is just something so other-worldly about this album. It harks back to the past of pop music while reaching to the future beyond. Deerhunter has brought its dream-like lusciousness to a smart, subtle  level. Halcyon Digest seems to echo from some alternate, ghostly dimension in music.

3. MGMT – Congratulations (Columbia)
Congratulations was a bold step forward by MGMT, while staying true to its psychedelic art rock roots. The group moves beyond disco catchiness to something much more complex, earning comparisons to Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Brian Eno.

4. Mogwai – Special Moves (Rock Action)
Though I have been a dedicated fan of this post rock outfit, following their every release since 1998’s Kicking a Dead Pig, this live double album tracing their decade-plus career made me fall in love with the band all over again. Mogwai have always been generous with their releases, throwing in behind-the-scenes footage on  DVD alongside their recent albums. This live package happens to contain a long-form film of the live show recorded in Brooklyn on DVD, capturing the group in their typical focused and intense form. I was able to find a rare triple vinyl edition package that also included a patch and signed poster, as seen in the image. Only 550 copies featured the signed poster and sold out rather fast on their website.

5. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Merge)
I like Arcade Fire because, as modern as they are, they seem very nostalgic and very anti-tech, even while offering a very baroque musical style that is brash, full of energy and in the now. Beyond their lyrics spelling this theme out, their vinyl records have always been produced with great care, and the Suburbs was no exception. They even posted images of every track on individual vinyl acetates, ahead of the album’s release (the image above is the first track, as featured on their website).

6. Beach House – Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
A consistently dreamy album built on delicate melodies instead of the wash of noise that is so easy for dream-pop bands to hide behind. I picked up the vinyl album after I saw them live for the first time. It came with a DVD with amateurish videos for each song. None of these videos come near to equating the splendor of the music that defies visual representation. It’s best left unwatched.

7. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts & Crafts)
My love for Broken Social Scene stemmed from their sonic kinship with bands like the Sea and Cake and Tortoise. When they got together with those band’s drummer and key sonic engineer, John McEntire, for this new album, it felt like a perfect match. The results were indeed a magic melding of McEntire’s projects with BSS. A limited run of this album came out as a set of colored 10-inch 180 gram vinyl records with one song one each side. It was limited to only 500 copies, but it seems you can still get it on-line.

8. The Vaselines – Sex with an X (Sub Pop)
A brilliant comeback more than 20 years in the making. It’s like Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee had never separated at the end of the 80s. Their sly sense of humor remains intact, not to mention the brash song-writing that still echoes their garage-rock origins, albeit with a more polished and glossier production.9. Of Montreal – False Priest (Polyvinyl)
Speaking of a more polished sound, Of Montreal followed up the most insane record of their career, Skeletal Lamping, with the better focused False Priest. It did not take many listens to fall under the glammy, soulful spell of this neo glam rock outfit’s landmark 10th album. More than ever, mastermind and singer Kevin Barnes shows off his leanings toward Prince-inspired stylings with not only his howls and moans but also his songcraft.

10. Stereolab – Not Music (Drag City)
Stereolab made a low-key return to the indie music scene at the end of the year with their new “non-album” composed of outtakes from the sessions that produced 2008’s Chemical Chords. Appropriately titled Not Music, the album reveals the “groop” at its most unrestrained in years. “Silver Sands” was just a low-key three-minute ditty on Chemical Chords, but on Not Music, it’s extended to take on a whole side of one of the slabs of vinyl to jam out in all it’s Krautrock-inspired glory. This was a glorious return to the old Stereolab I fell in love with in the early nineties. The collector-friendly (or frustrating, depending on how you see it) band has released only 500 copies of the vinyl version of the album on clear wax via the UK’s Rough Trade store. Yep, I got a copy.

Finally, though I know I have been on “hiatus” for a while (man, the indie world is quiet this time of year), I do plan a prompt follow-up to present readers with the most impressive re-issue I came across this year, and I did come across several cool things.

For now, do share your top own 10 albums in the comment section below (it doesn’t have to be vinyl).

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Promo shot of Take It Easy
Hospital as seen in the movie.

The movie No One Knows About Persian Cats adds a whole other dimension to the term “indie rock.” The Iranian film chronicles the rise and untimely demise of a duo seeking to take their brand of English-sung alternative rock from the underground music scene of Tehran to the west. As seen at the beginning of the trailer there exists laws prohibiting the performance and recording of rock ‘n’ roll music in Iran. So this kind of music truly earns the title of underground music. Musicians exploring this form of musical expression actually risk jail time.

Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad portray the musicians who in real life head the collective Take It Easy Hospital and did indeed make it to England to begin their career performing Western-style alternative rock. Their MySpace page is testament to that accomplishment. You can hear live streams of their songs on their MySpace page, including a new demo.

Their music is catchy quirky stuff with sullen, desperate lyrics, like any good brand of alt-rock music. Anyone who likes the style of early Stereolab or modern Arcade Fire should make an effort to check it out.

You can also download Take It Easy Hospital’s EP, which they claim to have recorded in Iran, at the UK site Plus a soundtrack CD has already been released, which also features many of the other varied artists featured in the movie.

But adding a deeper resonance to the quality of the music is what the duo had to do to release it. Their ordeal puts to shame western bands who record under the banner of indie rock. Based on the difficulties depicted in No One Knows About Persian Cats, which, as the film established at the start, is based on true events, no musician seeking to express him or herself via independent music in Tehran takes the privilege for granted.

Bahman Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly) shot the scenes with a handheld camera, following the musicians through many winding stairs and narrow corridors to get to spaces where musicians could play an array of musical styles without the police arresting them. The movie’s story explores several of the difficulties in the duo’s attempt to not only leave Iran but also gather the backing band to perform their music. Though their acting appears forced (these are non-actors) and the film’s super downer of an ending comes out of left field with no real purpose but to shock, the movie’s power comes from the passion for musical expression and the utter affection Ghobadi has for the illegal music he filmed below the radar of the law enforcement in Tehran.

Ghobadi spends a lot of time on letting the performances play on, which range from hip-hop to metal to folkloric (for the region). The lighting in some of theses scenes are almost idyllic, compared to the intercut, handheld street scenes. He captures the bliss of the music with a style influenced by MTV. In doing so, Ghobadi presents that metaphysical place these musicians are striving for in the moment of the music—a place of escape, even if it’s only in the form of making fleeting music.

Risking jail and even torture, the drive for musical expression in this truly underground music scene goes beyond any western definition of what indie rock means. In a world, where being able to play an electric guitar can be taken for granted, a movie like this shows how privileged we are to have the alternative music that bucks the corporate music world.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)