TOMBSTONE BLUES: The Music Documentary Boom
director's cut, Sight & Sound, May 2007
by Simon Reynolds
There’s something about music documentaries. Rarely inspired and often less than
enthralling, they have this curious quality of watchability. Low key verging on ambient, they seem made for TV: you can slip into their flow easily, if you switch channels and find yourself in the middle of one, because there’s rarely a narrative as such, rock careers generally consisting of a series of disconnected events leavened with lots of numbing repetition (interminable touring, recording, debauching). The rock doc genre nicely combines mild edification (you’re bound to learn something) with the vicariously thrilling spectacle of misbehaviour and dysfunction. Yet there’s also something compelling mundane about rockumentaries, or at least those that take the fly-on-the-wall approach. The effect--demystification tinged with schadenfreude—is similar to celebreality TV. All the studio sessions and rehearsals, the tour bus tedium and backstage banality allow us to see the stars at their least stellar, cut down to human size.
Right now is a great time for rockumentary addicts. This decade has seen a boom for the genre--definitely in quantity, and arguably in quality too. “In the 1990s”, opines the the BFI reference work Pop Music In British Cinema, “there were less in the way of rockumentaries,” and although the reason for this is unclear, the contention feels correct. Only 1991: The Year That Punk Broke (Dave Markey’s movie about grunge on the cusp of invading the mainstream) and Nick Broomfield’s equally grunge-centric Kurt and Courtney really stand out as memorable additions to the genre inaugurated by late Sixties landmarks like Don’t Look Back and Woodstock.
This on-going resurgence of the rock doc can be dated back to the year 2000 and Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols film The Filth and the Fury. It picked up speed with 2002-03 efforts like I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (about Wilco), Live Forever (Britpop), and Mayor of Sunset Strip (about perennial LA scenester Rodney Bingenheimer). By mid-decade the floodgates were wide open. DiG! (Ondi Timoner’s remarkably absorbing doc about two remarkably minor bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre) won a Sundance Grand Prize, while Metallica: Some Kind of Monster pulled in the supersize popcorn crowd at cineplexes across America. Other notable docs from 2004-06 include The Nomi Song (about little-known Manhattan clubland oddball Klaus Nomi), If I Should Fall from Grace With God: The Shane McGowan Story, Festival Express (based on footage from a 1970 tour of Canada by Grateful Dead, Janis Jopin and The Band), The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the Flaming Lips doc The Fearless Freaks, and We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen. Last year the idea of rock musicians as lightning rods for conservative rage and government anxiety informed Shut Up and Sing (about controversially anti--Bush country stars the Dixie Chicks) and The U.S. vs. John Lennon. And the boom shows no sign of subsiding with high-profile docs on Scott Walker and Joe Strummer coming out early in 2007.
Why? One reason is surely economics. With their small crews and low budgets (no scripts, actors, costumes, props, effects) these films are cheap to make. While unlikely to gross massively, rock docs offer less risks in terms of recouping, given that most subjects for the rockumentary treatment bring in tow a built-in niche market of fans who’ll buy the DVD. As well as music documentaries getting on the big screen more frequently (Dig, Some Kind of Monster and this year’s Air Guitar Nation have been general released to movie theaters) there are also ever increasing opportunities for rock docs to get shown on TV, thanks to the expansion of cable and digital. Although they often serve as a form of cheap schedule filler, rock docs also provide channels on both sides of the Atlantic—Ovation and VH1-Classic in the USA, BBC Four and Channel 4 in the UK—a way of attracting both the youth audience and baby-boomers, who enjoy seeing the classic rock era they lived through endlessly chewed over.
That last point offers another clue to the boom in the music documentaries, the Law of Retro whereby the vitality of a music genre bears an inverse ratio to the amount of historical knowledge built up around it. Rock docs are just one sector of a malignantly metastisizing retro industry that encompasses band reformations and reunion tours, expanded reissues of classic albums and out-take crammed box sets, remakes and sequels, live performances of classic albums in their original sequence, rock histories and biographies galore, retro-oriented magazines finding endless new angles on the same old history with feature packages on the making of landmark albums or famous fans talking about their favourite Beatles/Smiths/etc songs, and, not least, new bands recycling old styles. The music doc slots into one sub-folder of this vast retro-mania industry, in between DVDs of back-in-the-day concerts and biopics.
There is a feeling abroad that rock—maybe even the “music thing” in its entirety—is essentially over; that, if not quite dead, then certainly its best years are well past. And that all that’s left in this circumstance is to pore over the past, either to marvel yet again at the mythic exploits of the pantheon giants or to find little nooks and crannies, stuff that aren’t totally worn out through repetition. Rock docs do both: some take yet another pass at thrice-told tales like punk rock (Temple’s Strummer doc), others fasten on obscure scenes or neglected genres with the aim of saving them from History’s wastepaper basket. Today is the era of the archivist, the curator, the documentarian—experts at sifting through the detritus churned up during rock’s surge years, that period when people made history rather than chronicled it, lived it in real-time rather than watched it long after the fact. It’s a moot question whether retro culture arose as a symptomatic response to rock’s slowing down (prompting people to hark back, understandably, to when it was all forward-thrust and change-full dynamism) or whether the drastic growth of retro culture as a result of technological changes (the CD, the web, mp3s, YouTube etc) is actively distracting us from living in the pop present. But either way, the music doc field is a major element of the necrophile banquet that is contemporary retro-rock.
Not that all music docs are retro-spective by any means. Some capture a band at a particular moment in its existence (Meeting People Is Easy caught Radiohead’s disorientation and fatigue during the OK Computer world-tour, the very disillusion that led them to the radical self-reinvention of Kid A). Others attempt to document a scene or subculture as it happens. But the sector that is driving the current boom is the retro-doc, whether it’s the career biography of the maverick auteur (Scott Walker: 30th Century Man) or the genre/scene based doc like recent efforts on Detroit techno and British postpunk. These all follow the format that could be dubbed “talking heads plus”—the plus factor ranging from rudimentary (stills of album covers and concert photographs) to an artful weave of vintage footage (TV appearances, early stabs at promo clips, etc) and non-kinetic archival matter such as posters, flyers, magazine covers, and so forth. Either way, the talking heads element tends to involve a series of weathered-looking middle aged musicians and record business people dredging up their memories, often in what appears to be the kitchen area of a maisonette or on the living room sofa.
Eve Wood’s Made In Sheffield (2004) looks at the city that produced Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, ABC and Pulp, while James Nice’s Shadowplayers (2006) concerns Factory Records and the Manchester postpunk scene. Both contain plenty of fascinating data for the hardcore fans, but there is a strong sense that either would have worked almost as well as an illustrated oral history in a magazine or as very detailed sleevenotes (like the ones Nice writes for his reissue label LTM). It’s cool to hear the voices of the key players, but it doesn’t add that much. Made In Sheffield and Shadowplayers are both superior to the Detroit techno doc High Tech Soul, which contains virtually nothing informationally that even a semi-afficianado wouldn’t already have read a dozen times before. All the clichés about Detroit techno as the origin and apogee of electronic dance music get recycled. Aggrandizement (self and collective) from the prime movers alternates with accolades from the acolytes, punctuated here and there by the inevitable shots of Detroit’s decayed post-industrial inner city and some disappointingly non-vibey footage of the deejays spinning records. But you don’t get much sense of why the music was so special or why it’s been so globally influential.
Living Inside the Speaker is no less an exercise in city boosterism than High Tech Soul, but this film on Bristol’s dubstep scene at least deals with something fresh and far from done-to-death. The unpretentious enthusiasm of the scene’s prime movers, who have built a regional outpost of a subculture that started and remains centred in London, is engaging, and the doc makers Mike Thomas and Mark Walker do better in one signal respect than High Tech Soul’s Gary Bredow, simply by capturing their interviewees in their natural environment: clubs, record stores, a pressing plant for dubplates (one-off pre-release tracks exclusive to a particular DJ). Dubstep’s birthplace—the featureless region of South London between Tulse Hill and Croydon—has actually been compared to Detroit, but not to be out-done on the urban bleakness front, Living Inside the Speaker makes a fair argument for Bristol as a grim and grimy place. Instead of genteel Georgian crescents, we’re shown the areas of this major port that were bombed flat during WW2then rebuilt at speed, an any-colour-so-long-as-it’s-grey kaleidoscope of brutalist housing blocks, CCTV cameras, and graffiti-daubed underpasses.
Dedicated to another post-rave underground sound, Feiern: Don’t Forget to Go Home is a wonderfully vivid glimpse into the Berlin techno scene, capturing the curious ability of German clubbers to stay elegant even at their most wasted. Nothing can rival the 30 second rave sequence in Morvern Callar, but director Maja Classen comes close with her strobe-blitzed footage in which the dancers become zombie-silhouettes that keep getting re-absorbed into the sinister blue murk. Then there’s the scenes that catch the human wreckage in the unforgiving dawn light, prone on floors or couches, haggard with bliss.
Feiern uses a lot of “talking head” material, from deejays, journalists, and other scenesters. But--being Germans--the backdrops for their chat are as stylishly minimal as the music--typically a white-walled bedroom with a futon and a dainty ceramic platter to hold the ashtray or wineglass. There’s none of that lumpen aspect UK rave had, still discernible in dubstep with the downward-slippage of accents and mangled grammar of the Bristol interviewees. Evoking the attractions and pitfalls of the hardcore clubbing-and-drugging lifestyle, Classen’s cast are precise and sometimes poetic, unafraid to slip into a phenomenological or spiritual register. Just about the first words in Feiern comes from an unidentified voice-over declaring “it was the wordless time…it was our poem of bliss,” while Inga, a label owner, talks about how Ecstasy-plus-techno makes “time feels like a space that’s expanding and finally disappearing.”
Feiern avoids the trainspottery side of dance culture (the minute subgenric distinctions, the technical nitty-gritty of how tracks are made) in favour of what the music makes possible: certain sorts of spaces and relations, a loss of self that can feel like finding your true self, an intense if ephemeral sensation of contact and communion in a crowd of “intimate strangers”. The deejay Ricardo Villabos, remarkably eloquent given that this Chilean expatriate here speaks English as a second-language, talks about society’s failure to provide avenues for experiences of collectivity and how clubbers become “addicted to that closeness.” Like all addictions, this can be damaging. Another exiled-to-Berlin deejay, Ewan Pearson notes how German clubs “don’t stop until the last person has fallen over… some gigs I’ve played for six hours when I was booked for three” and admits he prefers the British thing of “having a definite end to the night, a Last Record” as opposed to the Berlin ethos of not stopping “until there’s just a few, very disturbed people left who would carry on if you were banging a spoon on a saucepan, so long as you did it in time.” His concluding remark provides the doc with its subtitle: “party hard, but don’t forget to go home at some point”.
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Documentaries about scenes or sounds are far out-numbered by ones about individual creative units (a singer, musician, band…), presumably because they’re easier to make and easier to sell. Scott Walker: 30th Century Man and Joe Strummer: the Future Is Unwritten are superior examples of the rock doc as heroic biography. Both cleave to the “talking heads plus” formula but bring plenty of imaginative flair to the plus aspect.
In 30th Century Man, director Stephen Kijak frames the hermetic and hermit-like Walker as a mystery man prone to disappearing for decades at a time. Right at the start, David Bowie—the film’s executive producer and a Walker fan ever since he dated an ex-girlfriend of the singer and was forced to hear the former heart-throb crooner’s astonishing avant-MOR solo albums—asks rhetorically “who knows anything about Scott Walker?”. The doc then proceeds to shed a fair amount of light without truly penetrating the inner core of darkness that motivates this driven and uncompromising artist. Inclined to avoid media attention, Walker obliges with a rare on-camera interview, and comes over accommodating and articulate yet ultimately elusive. (He’s also remarkably ageless, at 63 looking uncannily like Beck’s elder brother). Associates and admirers (including Johnny Marr, Brian Eno, and Jarvis Cocker) generate a steady flow of recollections and insights, and we witness scenes from the sessions for 2006’s The Drift, Walker’s third comeback album, including the bizarre spectacle of a side of meat being used as percussion. The archival material is top-notch, ranging from Arnie Potts, a Walker memorabilia collector, guiding us through his treasure, to vintage TV appearances, to an open letter printed in a pop magazine and written by 14 fans disappointed by the avant-garde turn in the singer’s post-Walker Bros work: “don’t underestimate our force… the end is nigh, you’re way off course… your reign is over--goodbye Scott.”
One effective Kijak device is filming the famous fans listening to key songs, catching their facial reactions and off-the-cuff thoughts. Alison Goldfrapp, of all people, nails the quality of Walker’s voice circa his second comeback album Tilt-- “it’s beautiful and unpleasant at the same time...” . And you gotta love Marc Almond for bravely admitting to loathing that 1995 album: “ I went to the playback and everyone was sitting silent and reverent and I thought ‘is it just me or is this awful?’ The solitary blunder on Kijak’s part is using cheesy abstract computer animations to backdrop some of Walker’s most sublime songs, like “Boy Child” and “The Electrician”. 30th Century Man is genuinely informative, with plenty of revelations about Scott’s working methods, but in the end you don’t really understand what impelled his journey from Righteous Brothers-style stardom to a solo career whose ambition was seemingly to fuse Nelson Riddle and Ingmar Bergman. There’s a passing reference to a lifetime of suffering nightmares, and a palpable sense--transmitted in just the delivery of the song “Rosary” on Later with Jools-- of a profound sense of human abjection (something strengthened by one commentator’s comparison of Walker’s work with Francis Bacon’s). But in the end Scott remains an enigma, which is perhaps how it should be.
The Future Is Unwritten, Julien Temple’s latest contribution to the hegemonic stranglehold punk maintains over rock history, takes a more expansive approach than 30th Century Man, treating Joe Strummer as both an exceptional individual and a product of his times. The narrative arc is conventional (close to the rise/fall/resurrection formula of VH1’s Behind the Music band biographies), depicting Strummer as someone who invents himself (literally changing his name, not once but twice), surfs the breaking wave of pop history by joining the Clash at the exact right moment, loses his way in rudderless meander for at least a decade, only to find himself again in his later years. Familiar stuff, but Temple’s approach is exuberant, alternating between playfulness and poignancy, burnishing the myth and acknowledging the man’s several flaws. As with The Filth and the Fury, Temple adds a third element to the vintage footage and talking head material, weaving in cultural ephemera that sets the period or ironically frames the events in Strummer’s life: when father Ronald, a diplomat, is stationed in Turkey, we see an ancient TV commercial for Fry’s Turkish Delight; when little Joe gets sent to boarding school, there’s scenes from If……
This is fun, but cleverer still is Temple’s ploy for getting around the essential static and expository nature of talking head material. The spine of the film is a series of camp-fire gatherings in various cities—London, New York, San Francisco--attended by Strummer friends and comrades. Flames flicker across their time-ravaged faces as they sit and reminisce, listening all the while to Strummer’s London Calling music shows for the BBC World Service. After going to the Glastonbury Festival in 1995, Strummer became obsessed with the notion of the camp fire as a primordial human experience, a place for song and story; he convened campfire parties regularly right up until his death. So Temple’s device honors the spirit of the man while providing an attractive visual thread through the movie.
Through Glastonbury and rave culture, Strummer rediscovered the hippy soul he had before he morphed into a punk. The most revelatory part of The Future Is Unwritten deals with the long period between Strummer’s “coming of age’ in 1968and his becoming the Clash’s frontman. Most of these eight years were spent in the bohemian squatland of Ladbroke Groove, the UK equivalent to Haight-Ashbury. Strummer’s first band the 101-ers formed out of this milieu, but although their ragged, rootsy sound was opposed to hippiedom’s musical values they were a long way from virulence of punk rock. The latter’s emergence is dramatized by intercutting footage from early punk gigs with Anti-Nazi versus National Front street riots and scenes from the black-and-white 1954 BBC television version of 1984 (the morning hate sessions in which Party members shout at TV images of the traitor Goldman, Big Brother’s arch-enemy). The rabid “hate, hate” chant blends with the thuggish pogo pulse of punk rock, highlighting the ambivalent nature of punk energies. For all their anti-authoritarianism (the Sex Pistols rhyming Queen with “fascist regime”), punks also poured contempt on liberals for their weakness and exhibited an inhumane and anti-humanist streak ripe with fascist potential. There’s an echo of 1984 too in the double-think swiftness with which Strummer ditched his friends in the 101-ers and enrolled in the Clash. “We were almost Stalinist,” Strummer recalls of this “all change” moment in 1976.
Fast forward to the mid-90s, and after a decade of drift and funk, Strummer has embraced his hippie roots again and reconciled with the Grove ‘n’ Gate friends who once stopped speaking to him after his defection to punk. The Future Is Unwritten notes the singer’s faults and contradictions, the most intriguing perhaps being the way this anti-war minstrel, who wept when he saw on TV circa the first Gulf War that a US bomber crew had written ‘Rock the Casbah’ on a missile destined for Iraq, was patriotically obsessed with the Second World War and said his grave stone should read “punk rock warlord”. But The Future Is Unwritten is essentially a heroic saga, ending on an upbeat, affirmative note, with Strummer exalting life, change, humanity, people power. The title itself, a Strummer saying, reiterates the Clash’s stance, a rejection of the Sex Pistols’ “No Future”.
Entertaining and heartwarming, Temple’s documentary is in some ways a far less interesting film than the original Clash movie, 1980’s Rude Boy, which is generally considered botched and boring. An ungainly but innovative hybrid of documentary, concert movie, cinema verite drama and social realist tone-poem, Rude Boy was disowned by the band, whose management at one point contemplated legal action against its makers, David Mingay and Jack Hazan. It’s easy to see why: Rude Boy demystifies The Clash, exposing as naïve and wishful the band’s romantic vision of working class youth. The film not only conveys the alienation that spawned punk but is also full of Brecht-style alienation effects. The fictionalized elements are very close to reality (Hazan got the performers, including the Clash, to re-enact scenes that had happened in their lives perhaps only a few days before, or to improvise dialogue) while the ostensibly real-est element in Rude Boy, the famously thrilling concert footage, is doctored and artificial (the musical element of the band’s performances were re-recorded in a studio because the sound quality from the gigs was too poor to use).
The lead character Ray Gange was played by a real person called Ray Gange, whose contribution to the dialogue and story-line earned him a screenplay co-writing credit. In real life, he was a friend of Strummer but in the film “Ray Gange” becomes a repellent character, a hanger-on who roadies for the band on their major tours of 1978 until ineptitude and drunken-ness get him booted off mid-tour. He’s a genuinely passionate if confused fan of the Clash, responding to the prole sentimentality of Mick Jones songs like “Stay Free” but not connecting with the band’s politics and possessing an unsightly racist streak. There are two key scenes between Gange and Strummer. In a Brixton pub, they talk about rich and poor and the class system: Gange says his only goal is to become “one of the few”, with “money, a country mansion, and servants”; Strummer tries to persuade him “there’s nothing at the end of that road, no human life”. Later, an inebriated Gange upbraids Strummer in a rehearsal room, “I don't think you should mix your music with politics--it annoys me"; Strummer pounds out “Let the Good Times Roll” on the piano, whether in irony or genuine longing it’s hard to say. The movie ends with shots of Margaret Thatcher waving victorious on the steps of 10 Downing Street in May 1979 and the strong implication that Gange, along with many other punk fellow travelers, either voted for her or couldn’t be bothered to vote against her.
Rude Boy’s most enduring value lies in its documentary footage of crisis-torn Britain, the context for Gange’s muddled politics. National Front protestors rail outside a secondary school about Trotskyites in the classroom promoting same-sex love and interracial breeding; there’s imagery of Anti-Nazi League marchers facing off with the ranks of bobbies in riot gear, and footage of the massive Rock Against Racism festival in Victoria Park. Most of all, the movie throughout is a time capsule of the sheer drabness and crapness of the UK in those stagnant, deadlocked years of Jim Callaghan and Grunwick… the color-bleached streets, the pre-style culture shop fronts and advertising hoardings, the almost Eastern Bloc look of people’s clothing… There’s a strange little sub-plot about Jamaican youths getting arrested for snatching hand-bags, which troubled the Clash, who thought it racist stereotyping, but was probably Mingay & Hazan implying that punks, for all their clamoring for “a white riot” of their own, had no inkling of what real oppression was.
Rude Boy also seems to argue that the Clash, their following, maybe punk as a whole, was a half-measure, a movement of puerile malcontents venting their frustrations through exciting aggro but flinching from the hard work, rigour-of-thought and self-sacrifice required for real revolutionary struggle. At Victoria Park, the kids spurn the pamphlets proffered by the Socialist Worker Party activists behind the Anti-Nazi League. A later scene, showing Strummer washing out his Brigade Rossi T-shirt in the hotel hand-basin, invites derision. More than just an expose of punk posturing, though, what Rude Boy hints at is the secret shame of rock itself: at best, it’s about living within capitalism while remaining opposed to it.
It’s easy to see why The Clash distanced themselves from Rude Boy: everything anthemic and uplifting about their music is deflated, by both the overtly hope-less message of the story and the unsettling flatness of the movie’s feel, its longeurs, lacunae, and loose ends. While some of this effect is inadvertent, a matter of deficiency, it seems clear to me that Mingay and Hazan aimed to deglamorize. But then, no matter how iconographic their intention, rockumentary makers always end up demystifying their subjects to some extent: every increase in factual knowledge takes us further from the Truth, which in rock music is always myth.