Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I've professed my love of the rock documentary genre several times before on this blog. For me, it's the Reese's Cup of my two greatest artistic passions: music and cinema, two great tastes that taste great together. And while I've gushed quite a bit about my love for rock docs, I've never actually provided a list of some of my favorites, the ones that that I watch over and over again for both entertainment and inspiration. So today I will.

What follows is part one of a two part series on my favorite "rockumentary" films. While most of these films are rock related, you will see that I've included some artists that push the boundaries of generic "rock" music, and some that in fact step right over those boundaries. But, hey, it's my list so I'll do what I want.

I hate the typical "10 Best" lists as much as everyone, so I've tried to make this one a bit special by giving some back story on the artists, as well as some personal anecdotes and a not-completely-half-assed review of each of the films. Maybe 3/4 assed. Even 7/8 assed on a couple. Regardless, I hope you enjoy it and maybe even pick up a few of the films you haven't seen yet.

So without further ado....let the countdown begin.

#10 - "The Song Remains The Same" (Led Zeppelin)

I guess I count myself amongst the small minority of American male music fans who never had a "Zeppelin Period". It seems that for many it's a high school or early college right-of-passage to become immersed in Robert Plant's trippy mythology-infused lyrics and Jimmy Page's pre-metal power chords, but it seems to have bypassed me somehow. It's not that I didn't listen to Led Zeppelin (I think the first vinyl album I ever owned was a copy of Zep IV I got from my dad), but they were more of a sidenote for me as I dived head-first into the "wild, thin mercury sound" and neo-Rimbaudian lyrics of Bob Dylan's mid-sixties work.

Recently (maybe because of the remasters? or because I'm playing guitar more?) I've begun to re-examine Led Zeppelin's work, both on vinyl & celluloid. Last month I rented "The Song Remains The Same" and, although I thought it was a pretty uneven work, it was worth a watch just for the incredible concert footage.

The film opens with a kind of hokey gangster piece that ends in a cartoonish bloodbath at a mansion. The film than transitions to an even hokier portrait of members of the band living an idyllic family life in what looks like the Scottish Highlands. Robert Plant apparently spent the peak of his rock star days living in a cottage & bathing his children in a local stream? I doubt it. And then suddenly it's time to go on tour--the band all gets together, flies to NYC and (without rehearsal, mind you) plays a note-perfect show to a huge crowd at the Madison Square Garden. Uhhhh....yeah.

But despite the lame attempts at myth-building and self-indulgent director flourishes, the concert footage is enough to put this film in my top ten. Although the MSG show is not one of their best live performances in my opinion, it's still a dynamic show with some amazing guitar and theremin playing by Mr. Page and some incredible singing and androgynous stage presence from Mr. Plant. Definitely worth a watch.

#9 - "Be Here To Love Me" (Townes Van Zant)

Townes Van Zant, along with Gram Parsons and Marc Bolan, has become a prime example of a post-modern rockstar. The field of study known as "revisionist history" has made its way into the realm of rock music and has resulted in a recent re-evaluation of the rock-&-roll cannon and its greats, as well as an attempt to find the superstars that the history books (i.e. Rolling Stone) forgot about.

Van Zant was an outlaw, a drunk, a drug abuser, and one of the greatest singer-songwriters to ever live. Just ask Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Norah Jones, Devendra Banhart, The Meat Puppets or any of the dozens of other musicians who have covered his songs. Best known for his breakout epic "Pancho and Lefty" and his cover of The Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" (used in the film "The Big Lebowski"), Townes recorded over a dozen albums in his short life (he died at 53 of a blood clot in his lungs following hip surgery) and has had nearly as many released posthumously.

"Be Here To Love Me" is a moving portrait of Van Zant, as both musician and man. It doesn't shy away from his addictions, fears and demons, but it also doesn't sensationalize them to the point that they take the focus away from his musical achievements. The film is beautifully shot, masterfully directed (the interviews with Townes' friends, family, contemporaries and legacies are wonderful) and intelligently edited. Highly recommended for both die-hard fans and newcomers to Van Zant's music.

#8 - Festival Express (The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, The Band)

The concept of the "festival film" has been around nearly as long as the rock documentary has. From modest verite works like Murray Lerner's portrait of the 1963-66 Newport Folk Festivals (appropriately named "Festival") to sprawling epics like Michael Wadleigh's "Woodstock" or D.A. Pennebakers' "Monterey Pop" and the recent films documenting Bonnaroo and Coachella, the "power in numbers" formula of thousands of fans + dozens of bands often = rockumentary success.

My personal favorite of the "festival film" genre doesn't cover a single festival, but instead a traveling tour of them. Bob Smeaton's "Festival Express", a portrait of a long, strange trip by Janis Joplin, The Band, Buddy Guy and The Grateful Dead via train to multiple concert sites throughout Canada, was original filmed in 1970 but was somehow not completed and released until 2004.

A truly unique touring concept that in turn became a truly unique film, the intimate setting of the tight confines of a passenger train make for some great moments with the films' stars. The creme de la creme of the 60's rock world let down their guard and just make a big party out of the trip, and the camera crew is there to capture it all, from a pitstop to clear out a local liquor store to the resulting drunken jam session that night (Rick Danko is haaaaaaaaaamered).

Somehow though, despite the unglamorous conditions and heavy partying, the musicians onboard the Express still make all of their concert stops and play some of the best live performances of their career. If you want to see some beautifully shot footage of The Dead at their peak, this is where to find it.

#7 - Nico: Icon (Nico)

While a few success stories were born between the aluminum foil walls of Andy Warhol's Factory (Lou Reed, John Cale, Paul Morrissey, Jim Carroll) there are probably quite a few more stories of failure. While the tragic tale of "Poor Little Rich Girl" Edie Sedgwick has gotten most of the attention lately (mostly brought on by the recent controversy-filled cinematic flop "Factory Girl"), perhaps the greatest waste of talent to come from Drella's House was the chanteuse known as Nico.

Nico (nee: Christa Päffgen) never really seem to fit in anywhere. Having bounced around from moderately successful attempts at modeling and acting (she had a bit part in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita") she met up with Warhol who decided to have her front his new pet project, an experimental rock band called "The Velvet Underground" (much the chagrin of Lou Reed, who was quite happy to remain the lead voice in the Velvets). The band made the smart decision and allowed Andy his little whim and recorded their first album ("produced" by Warhol) as "The Velvet Underground and Nico".

Reed's disdain of Nico was not subtle or tactful (but what about Lou Reed really is?) and she was soon out of the band before the second VU album went into production. One of the less heartless members of the group, John Cale (who would soon leave the Velvets on his own accord), helped Nico with arrangements and songwriting on her first two albums, "Chelsea Girl" (1967) and "The Marble Index" (1969). While the title track of the latter enjoyed a modest degree of cult popularity the albums were not commercially successful, more than partly due to Nico's very unconventional singing voice.

Nico continued to record and perform sporadically in the 70's, self-producing two more albums, and then had a bit of a renaissance with the 1980's NYC punk and no-wave scene. "Nico: Icon" devotes the majority of it's running time to this period, mainly because the key interviewee, band-member-turned-tabloid-paparazzi John Young, was her keyboardist at this time and has a lot of dirt to spill (Young had recently published a tell-all book about Nico that inspired the documentary). While the film pulls no punches in portraying Nico's 20+ year drug addiction (it is revealed that she turned her own son onto heroin) and the collapse of her musical creativity, it also shows her strong side, as a determined and passionate artist who still toured, recorded and acted up until her death at 49. Filled with concert footage, the dark, beautiful music that Nico created as a solo artist provides the perfect soundtrack to this brutally honest portrait.

#6 - The Miles Davis Story (Miles Davis)

I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that my introduction to jazz came by way of a Miles Davis album. While many in the U.S. are shamefully ignorant about the only truly American form of modern music, there are few people who wouldn't recognize the name or face of Mr. Miles. I can still remember being 11 or 12 and falling asleep listening to the copy of "Kind of Blue" my dad picked up for me at a yard sale. It was undeniably "cool" jazz, but it also had a soothing melancholy that still puts me completely at ease, in a way that few other albums can.

What I didn't realize back then, and what many still don't realize, is that Miles was about more than bebop, orchestral jazz arrangements and cool jazz in hot suits. He was also one of the most innovative musicians of his era, pioneering jazz fusion and funk with such masterpieces as "Bitches Brew" and "Live/Evil".

While "The Miles Davis Story" rarely goes beyond the standard definition of the biopic, it does a hell of a job within these boundaries. The film follows Miles through all of his career milestones: enrollment at Julliard, early apprenticeship with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the "Birth of the Cool" peak of Davis' fame, the fusion experiments, later collaborations with hip-hop artists, etc.

Miles Davis was certainly not a model citizen by any means, and the film does a good job of portraying his vices and faults: he was addicted to heroin during the peak of his success in the 50's, became addicted to cocaine in the 70's, was bitterly estranged from his sons for decades, and physically or psychologically abused many wives and girlfriends. Think what you will of Miles as a man, he was a hell of a musician and he was creatively searching and innovating up until the very end. Using amazing archive footage and informative interviews with Davis' family members and musical partners, "The Miles Davis Story" paints a surprisingly full picture of the man, the musician, and the legend.

That's it for now...check back soon for Part Two, where I'll Casey Casem you down to my number one pick. Thanks for reading!


the le duo said...

very well written. i've seen em all but the nico one, and i agree with your assessments. i prefer the relatively new 'how the west was won' zeppelin dvd to 'the song remains the same' none of the lame acting weird stories, more of the rock. festival express is great, and i have to say that it looks like danko is on a little bit more than the booze if you dig my drift.

jay said...

Yeah, I'd have to agree with you about Danko--I'm pretty sure he had quite a chemical cocktail in his system during that scene.

I haven't seen "How The West Was Won" but I'll have to check it out. Part two of the countdown will have a list of films that didn't make the cut because either they A) never had an official release or B) I haven't watched them yet.

casey said...

I grew up onm The Song Remains the Same, and, while I'd defend Zeppelin until the Dogs of Doom stop howling, I'd never describe the MSG concert as "note-perfect." With the exception of Bonham — who is usually at 100% no matter what kind of rocket fuel he's on — Zep are a notoriously shitty live act. I say that with the full admission that they're my favorite rock band of all time.

For me, the best parts of that movie are the fantasy sequences. Love that sequence where Page is playing hurdy-gurdy on the banks of the Loch (that's Ol' Aleister's house just off camera) and his eyes turn glowing red. Horns up, yo.

I disagree on "Festival Express" — I thought it was dull, self-indulgent and frankly sad. Janis reveals herself as a thin talent with a major self-esteem problem. But I guess we already knew that. The Danko scene is priceless, though.

Bring on the rest!

jay said...

I don't know if I'd agree with the comment that Zeppelin is a shitty live act--although they're as far from the perfection they created on their albums (which would be impossible to reproduce live) they still put on a dynamic stage show that for the most part stayed pretty true to the originals. My only complaint about Zep live is that Plant's voice never could match the overdubbed falsetto perfection on the albums; it would be interesting to see how he could have sounded using today's technology.

We'll have to agree to disagree on "Festival Express" :)

jay said...

As for the rest of the list...it will be posted next week. Sorry to leave you hanging, but I have a pretty tight schedule in Chicago over the next four days.

The quality of the #5 to #1 reviews will depend on the comments I get here and how many people link to this first part from their blogs. It took me a good three hours of research, writing & editing to do this one, so I need some initiative to do the same for the "final countdown" (I promise this is not a hint that a Europe documentary is in the top five....or is it?)