Home > Big Picture > Keep Your Eyes on the Music: Depth and Passion on You Flat Screen

Keep Your Eyes on the Music: Depth and Passion on You Flat Screen

Human beings, no matter what our varying backgrounds and barriers may be, are captivated by the same thing: a story.  A story that’s equal parts fantastical and realistic. A story that makes us use our imagination while simultaneously seeing ourselves in the characters.  We seek such experiences through song and through film.  Combining music with film was perhaps an event of such dramatic proportion, the mere comprehension of such an occurrence could only be described as celestial.  And so the music documentary was created: a kind of film that interweaves education, melodic inspiration, and visual stimulation.  Over the past 50 years, such films have chronicled musical artists, concerts and events of monumental proportion: The Song Remains the Same (1973) demonstrated the magnitude of Led Zeppelin’s mystical stage presence; Dont Look Back (1967) found Bob Dylan touching hearts with his guitar while dismissing his powers of persuasion; Let It Be (1970) displayed the slow dissolve of the greatest band of them all, The Beatles; Rattle and Hum (1988) captured U2 searching for new motivation immediately following the artistic and commercial breakthrough of their seminal album The Joshua Tree; Gimme Shelter (1970) saw The Rolling Stones trapped in the middle of a violent social transition from the peace driven 1960s and the impatience of the 1970s.  And while the early stages of music documentaries have chiefly concentrated on rock music, thus the moniker rockumentaries, filmmakers have devoted as much time to all manners of genres and artists, from Jazz to Blues, serving as historical touchstones to important people and movements.

Currently, the rockumentary is fighting for the attention of the masses, due to the double-edged sword of the expanding quantity of entertainment choices.  With the current supremacy of television programming over motion pictures and the rapid technological advances of the world wide web, viewers have turned away from documentaries and become entranced by celebrity obsessed television shows and internet gossip blogging.  No longer are people fascinated with the ins and outs of an artist’s soul and path to immortality but with the tags on their designer shoes and their sleeping arrangements with respective partners.

As a new wave of music based documentaries has hit both the television sets

Celebrity Reality Shows like VH1's "The Surreal Life" have gained popularity, but lack the class and integrity of Music Documentary.

and the silver screen over the past 24 months, it looks like rockumentaries have absorbed the blows and has the strength to go the distance.  This will be an exploration of how these films will serve as an aesthetically superior alternative to the shallow mediums of reality television and celebrity gossip forums.  You will discover that while some of these shows like Access Hollywood and The Fashion Police may have initial entertaining values, they prove fleeting and offer no lasting information that can be applied to furthering self-obtained knowledge.  And while reality shows are easier to produce and present, the visual presentation of rockumentaries leave a much longer impression on the human soul than manufactured tears and premeditated anger.  Producers of these microwave shows may be looking at the bottom line, but documentary filmmakers aren’t making movies just for money, but they’re fulfilling their own fantasies by extracting the knowledge of artists they admire, all in an effort to tell one unique story at a time.

Once upon a time, in the 20th century, mankind was in search of profound experiences to fulfill an instinctive thirst for knowledge and emotion.  In its purest form, music is nothing less than poetry to be interpreted in a thousand different ways depending on who hears that poetry.  We look for the truth about ourselves by listening to someone who can articulate their inner most feelings through melody, harmony and rhythm.  When Smokey Robinson said, “You better shop around,” or when Robert Plant sang, “been dazed and confused so long,” they spoke to those who felt the same way but didn’t know how to express it so profoundly and simply.

Clint Eastwood directed documentary "Straight, No Chaser," about Thelonious Monk, and later produced music docs for PBS.

In the realm of motion pictures, such a testimony is equally affective, if not much less complex, given the visual element offered to the viewer not available from a radio.  For the most part, the theme of a film is clear and its interpretation is more streamlined to all who see it.  People used to take their time to watch the life and/or evolution of a character unfold before them: seeing them go through highs of unprecedented triumph, lows of nearly insurmountable depression; seeing their interaction with other dynamic characters and how they react and adapt; seeing them come to a life changing turning point; watching them become redeemed in life, thanks to the perspective of something greater than themselves.  Such are the themes of all of our lives.  Each music documentary emotes various aspects of the human spirit that we are all capable of beholding.  Each film is a quest: a quest for self-expression (Wattstax, 1973); a quest for change (Saxophone Colossus, 1986); a quest for redemption (Anvil: The Story of Anvil, 2008); a quest for closure (The Last Waltz, 1978).

In the instant gratification society of the 21st century, we are still mesmerized by the offerings of recording artists; however the general public has been subtly trained to be obsessed with the trivial everyday goings on of these artists.  With outlets like E! Channel, Access Hollywood or TMZ, the average person feels that they are closer to celebrities than ever, therefore, it is no longer necessary to take a journey with them through film.  The rationale of the status quo is it’s a waste to devote so much time watching boring movies about musicians when we can log onto Perez Hilton’s latest celebrity blog for five minutes or take a half hour to catch Brandy and Ray J Norwood’s latest reality show, A Family Business, on VH1.  Information and inspiration has been replaced by hearsay and self-promotion.  Such television outlets present a serious obstacle for rockumentaries to even be filmed, let alone accepted. Phil Galloway, Vice President of Reelin’ in the Years Productions, which produces music documentary DVD box sets that chronicle artists like Dusty Springfield and the Small Faces, recognizes that it may be more difficult to sell a rockumentary that covers a unique and compelling story than, say, a feature motion picture with a bad script and a sexy cast. “We could make significantly more money doing music documentaries that have ugliness and nastiness of a much more tabloid nature,” Galloway told Elmore, “but at what point do you lose your soul with that kind of stuff?  In the end, music is going to be more entertaining than some salacious back story while the artists were megastars.”

“Good documentaries are about the artist, their impact of the music and also the idiosyncrasies of the artists, and whatever kind of quirks they have and lifestyle they have.”  These are the words of Clint Eastwood, acclaimed actor and Academy Award winning producer and director.  Aside from directing the 1994 Charlie Parker biopic “Bird,” Eastwood has had his hand in creating important music based documentaries, serving as executive producer for PBS films covering artists like Tony Bennett and Johnny Mercer. “It’s kind of interesting to film into it, because people like the music of a certain performer; they want to know what their life is like,” Eastwood continued. The creation of music documentaries, be it intended for television or theatrical release, ultimately attempt to shine a light on the aspect of a musician that can’t necessary be noticed by the naked eye, but through research, attention and intrigue, the life of an artist with give the viewer more insight to why music was created.

Some would argue music documentaries follow a similar pattern or format: interviews with artists, footage of past performances and narration to add perspective.  Although many documentaries do indeed use that “formula,” the layouts of rockumentaries are seldom alike.  “There are no rules on doing a documentary,” Eastwood went on.  “It’s just whatever historical footage you have and then finding a balance between discussion and historical footage.” As far as finding the right balance of current and archival footage, Eastwood found, “You just know it by feel.  At some point the archival footage speaks for itself.”

In 1988, Eastwood executive produced the film Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser.  The majority of that film is archival footage, showing the beguiling pianist/composer speaking and interacting with his band, friends and producers, while also catching him on stage.  Many who’ve ever heard a Monk composition can often tell immediately that it’s him tickling the ivories, thanks to his dissonant approach and incomparable chord progression.  But to see him onstage, grabbing a napkin from his pocket to wipe the sweat from his forehead or to see him flourishing onstage during a saxophone solo is a revelation to how much he felt the music and how unique his reaction to the music was in respect to other jazz artists of the day.  Eastwood clarified, “With Thelonious Monk, going back to Straight, No Chaser, everybody knew Monk was an eccentric but you get a feeling of his whole life and lifestyle.  You can’t show that very well in just a quick five minute deal.”

Many music documentaries utilize the inquiring curiosity of one prominent artist to extract information from another artist.  Davis Guggenheim’s 2009 film It Might Get Loud finds Jack White from The White Stripes, The Edge from U2 and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin talking alone and also with each about their mutual affection for the electric guitar.  Each artist talks about their techniques toward playing, their origins of learning to play and the evolution of their craft over time.  The documentary is far more compelling due to the fact that all three musicians are sitting amongst each other, picking each other’s brains.  It gives the audience a subconscious ideal that even musicians as famous as these men are as inquisitive as us regular fans are.  “I plan to trick both of these guys into teaching me all their tricks,” says White during the film.  The theme of the movie is to recount each musician’s journey for knowledge, passion and ingenuity.  That theme is expertly expressed in the opening scene, which finds White fashioning a makeshift guitar using scrap wood, an empty Coca Cola bottle, two nails and a string.  In contrast to such filmmaking, one must examine a show like MTV Cribs.  Cribs has rock stars like Ted Nugent and Sammy Haggar showing off their bevy of electric guitars with the same materialistic attitude that they showed when displaying their flashing cars and master bedrooms.  This is the type of frivolous display that further exposes the public’s obsession with material possessions over the opportunity to gain invaluable information.

Conventional reality TV, i.e. CMT’s Gone Country or VH1’s The Surreal Life, focuses on famous or infamous artists, but some of the most arresting documentaries carter to those just as talented but not recognized in mainstream.  Robert Mugge has directed 27 music documentaries over the past 32 years (Ruben Blades, Sun Ra, Gil Scott-Heron, etc.) and he takes pleasure in highlighting artists and events that while incredibly important to culture, are generally overlooked by the front page. “Artists might be creating the most incredible art that’s out there,” Mugge conveyed to Elmore, “but because they’re commercially at the margin; because they’re not doing lowest common denominator material or genres, they’re ignored.  As with everything corporate with the world right now, everybody’s thinking short term profit, short term ratings.  Serious documentaries and serious journalism is being replaced by tabloid programs and so-called reality shows.”  Unfortunately, a handful of today’s artists themselves are so wrapped up with the spoils of fame, that once they fall out of the spotlight, they have their agents book them a spot on shows like VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club.  This gives the viewer the impression that musicians who aren’t “famous” anymore cease to evolve as musicians.  This is not always true.

"Gospel According to Al Green" is one of 27 films from music documentarian Robert Mugge, included films on Gil Scott-Heron, Sun Ra, Ruben Blades and Sonny Rollins.

Two of Mugge’s films, Gospel According to Al Green (1984) and Saxophone Colossus (1986), capture two very different musicians – Al Green and Sonny Rollins – going through one similar situation: attempting to use their gift to improve their quality of life.  Green, once a platinum selling soul superstar, was at crossroads in his life, turning his back on secular music.  He became a reverend and would only perform gospel music.   Rollins, a saxophonist regarded to some as the greatest living jazz improviser, was in the midst of writing and performing a classical orchestral concerto.  Now, a six minute news expose on Entertainment Tonight, or a 1,000 word magazine article might have been able to clearly explain the reasoning behind Green’s decision or Rollins’ event, but to watch Green perform a powerful sermon in front of his Memphis, Tennessee congregation, sweating, speaking in tongues and becoming emerged in the Holy Spirit, or Rollins onstage in Tokyo blowing his tenor with a Japanese symphony orchestra is an experience that only the camera can capture.

Imagery plays a huge role in telling a story of a musician during a documentary.  It’s one thing for an artist to explain what they are going through and/or have gone through in their lives and careers, but when a filmmaker captures just the right image on screen, words are almost an afterthought.  Such was the case in Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Paul Justman’s 2002 film about the lives and legacy of Motown’s legendary and disregarded house band, the Funk Brothers.  “My job as a filmmaker is to find images that tell a story,” Justman explained, “which is why the scene with Joe (Hunter) doing his job in the hotel lobby is so important.  Here’s one of the major keyboard players of all time in records who, in order to make a living at the age of 70, plays in a hotel lobby.  That tells a lot.  I wanted you to see them as they really are.”  Justman’s approach to the film was that of a feature film; to put these outcast session players in a position befitting to men of their importance, shooting them in 35mm film just as Martin Scorsese had in The Last Waltz.  In fact, his inspiration for the documentary was actually not another documentary, but Kurasawa’s The Seven Samarai. “The way I approached it was more look a movie, a feature,” Justman expounded to Elmore further.  “I looked at the Motown musicians as royalty.  I was going make these guys look beautiful no matter what.  I had the DP that shot Full Metal Jacket for Kubrick.  We were giving them the same treatment as they would give Gary Cooper or Warren Beatty.”

Another film that had the make a feature was Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s Soul Power, the story behind Zaire ’74, the music festival set to accompany the heavyweight champion bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle.”  It showcases a pivotal point in Black music history, combining the talent of African-American performers like James Brown, The Spinners and The Crusaders with dynamic African artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.  The singers captured the element of unity in a time of social enlightenment. Carved from 125 hours worth of footage, this film didn’t not follow the same format on its sister film When We Were Kings (1996) or any of the documentary so-called formulas.  It followed a linear path throughout without narration.  “I had an opportunity to allow people the feeling of being in the moment,” Levy-Hinte stated.  “I didn’t feel we needed anyone to tell us what it was like to be in the moment.  Things operate in a slightly different way when it has much more of a narrative push.  In this sense it was more of a verite document.  I love the feeling that you can get, love in the music and it’s kind of like you’re hanging out with all these people.”  The cameras were placed on the stage of the festival in Soul Power which decreases the distance between the audience and artists and increases the “intimacy and immediacy” of the moment.  “When you look at the intensity of James Brown and you see the perspiration pouring off his face and five splits in a row, that gives you a whole other dimension of what’s going on.  You’re sort of watching the moment of creation.” Soul Power proved that visual components of rockumentaries are a huge component of what separates that forum from celebrity tabloid fodder, despite the fact that the lack of financial viability kept the film from being produced for 30 years.

It is understandable that film distributors and record labels are mainly concerned with making the most money.  Besides, we’re all in our respective businesses to make a profit.  But it’s because of this reason that these puppet masters in charge of creating shows like VH1 series Rock of Love, that ideas are meticulously planned and manipulated and eliminates any sense of spontaneity.  In the case of creating a rockumentary, the first idea seldom ends up being the finished product.  The directors for 2009 film Still Bill, a chronicle of Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter Bill Withers, had an original concept of filming a tribute concert and talking about his life and work.  However, after meeting Withers, it became obvious that some of their original ideas needed to be quickly abandoned in lieu of new ideas and concepts.  “It really is work that doesn’t try to put language in the mouth of the subject; it’s really just about letting them breathe and letting them speak on their own terms and shaping a narrative out of that,” said Damaini Baker, Co-Director/Producer of Still Bill.  He and co-director Alex Vlack found that Withers was a man with principles and wasn’t caught up in the trappings and illusions of show business.

Bill Withers recording with Raul Midon during the documentary "Still Bill."

Bill Withers was apprehensive with making the documentary at first, which was understandable considering his past relationships with the record industry. “We never know when we’re going to lose Bill Withers as a subject,” Vlack confessed.  “We better tape as much as we can while we’re with him.   If he wakes up in the morning and gives us anything, it’s a good day.”  In terms of films that concentrate on an individual artist, filmmakers may find that the artist is initially apprehensive to be captured on film.  And for good reason.  In the paparazzi saturated status of modern show business, an artist has legitimate justification to fear the camera.  Robert Mugge added that it’s hard for great artists who have total control over their careers to relinquish their control to a director.  “Brilliant artists are used to being in control.  They’re used to being in control of their message, their art; they’re in charge.  Suddenly, someone is coming up to them and saying ‘I’m in charge. I wanted play up the parts that I find most important about you.’”

For example: In the case of Madonna: Truth or Dare (1990), the provocative singer produced it herself.  While some viewers may argue it’s an example of shameless self-importance, Madonna would at least ensure that her personal vision would be fulfilled, rather than some would-be hotshot director looking to make a fast buck by creating an expose of scandalous hyperbole.

Kirk Hammett (left) and Lars Ulrich (right) of Metallica, from the documentary, "Some Kind of Monster."

In the 2004 film, Some Kind of Monster, depicting heavy metal band Metallica dealing with their internal relationship while simultaneously recording an album and auditioning a new bassist, singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich were verbally disdainful and weary of the cameras during both the group’s recording and therapy sessions.  When addressing the possibility of the cameras altering their behavior, therapist Phil Towle stated, “it’s not going matter whether the cameras are in play, but whether or not you guys are free enough to be seen by people.”  The uncomfortable energy helped to fuel them to create an album of overtly aggressive and chaotic material.  Despite the rage infused the album St. Anger, the film was about how the band members mended the fences between each other after suffering relationship wear and tear over 20 years.

It’s these uncomfortable moments that remind us that we dealing with real human beings.  These days, artists can get so caught up with the grandeur of being a celebrity, they often play up to the camera on shows like Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight, but when you’re life and livelihood is constantly being captured day in and day out, you find that once those cameras capture your eyes, there’s nowhere to hide.  Perhaps the most famous of these documentaries is Let It Be (1970), a film the captured The Beatles unraveling from a group of genius, enthusiastic song craftsmen into disillusioned, jaded individuals.  The image of Ringo Starr lazily hunched forward, earnestly playing his drums was a microcosm of the uncomfortable atmosphere amongst the band. The sloppy rehearsals, lackadaisical approach to demo takes, and the band’s detached body language said more about the state of the once Fab Four than any interview footage ever could.  John Lennon talked about the uncomfortable experience of Let It Be in an interview documented on the ABC series The Beatles Anthology: “It was just a dreadful, dreadful feeling.  And being filmed all the time – I just wanted them to go away.  We’d be there 8 in the morning, and you couldn’t make music at 8in the morning in a strange place with people filming you, and colored lights.”

A number of rockumentaries view the camera as the tool of the enemy, but the mood surrounding Taylor Hackford’s film Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll (1987) incited the opposite tone from some of its musicians.  Robert Cray, a Grammy Award winning Blues guitarist, became so caught up in the experience of playing with Chuck Berry, his demeanor was neither premeditated nor disdainful.  “The cameras were invisible,” Cray told Elmore.  “I don’t recall ever seeing a camera.  I just remember being around all the musicians and that’s what I remember to this day; there was just that much fun going on.”  Surrounded by legends like Eric Clapton and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, Cray represented a jubilation that was seemingly absent from Berry.  “From what I saw in the film, he’s a business man,” Cray went on.  “I think in some respects, it’s helped him and at the same time it’s been detrimental because of the trust.  In the days he was recording, a lot people got burned and Chuck was able to maintain because of his awareness.  But at the same time, that awareness put in position where he really didn’t trust anyone else around him.”

At the end of the day, it’s the mindset of the respective content creators that will ensure that music documentaries will always end up having a longer shelf life than celebrity based reality television and tabloid blogosphers.  Filmmakers are just as big of fans to the music as the viewers are, which is why ultimately they are able to communicate what it is that the audience will find interesting and may benefit from after seeing.  Producers of reality television use a giant fishnet to capture as many viewers as they can, whereas rockumentary directors cater to the wants and needs of their audience with surgical precision.  “A lot of times the films are just basically excuses for me to have an adventure,” Mugge concluded.  “And then what I basically try to do is share that adventure with whoever wants to watch the films.”  Musicians who are truly committed to their art are successful because they believe in what they are doing.  They believe in the stories they have to tell.  The filmmakers believe in them, too.  Just ask Clint Eastwood, who before he was a movie star, was just another young fan of the artists like Lester Young and Oscar Peterson.  “I only work on stuff that I really enjoy,” Eastwood told Elmore.  “I wouldn’t want to do a documentary on somebody I didn’t admire as a musician or singer.”  It’s that admiration that will keep the world watching.

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