Friday, July 27, 2007


This is it folks--the long-awaited (well, maybe just by me) final countdown in the Spitting Out Teeth Top 10 rock documentaries list. Enjoy!

#5 - "The Last Waltz" (The Band & others)

In recent years, there has been a noticeable jump in the number of prominent narrative filmmakers directing rock documentaries or biopics, from Jonathan Demme directing the Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense" to Oliver Stone's "The Doors" and the upcoming Todd Haynes polymorphous Dylan portrait "I'm Not There".

However, this wasn't always the case. Typically, music films (other than your standard Hollywood "musicals") were directed by independent directors, either hired by a record company to help promote an album or tour, or following a band out of a labor of love. The big names in early rock doc were the Maysles Brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, etc.-- certainly not Tinseltown big-hitters by any means.

The playing field changed in 1976 when one of the up-and-coming directors of the era, Martin Scorsese (still running hot after a Palme D'Or and several Oscar nominations for his now classic "Taxi Driver") teamed up with the world's greatest Canadian Dixie rock group The Band to record their final concert. The show, which would combine performances by The Band along with collaborations with some of their friends and former co-workers such as Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Neil Young and others, was to be called "The Last Waltz".

Whereas most rock documentaries that came before it were shot on an indie shoestring budget (often on grainy black-and-white 16mm film scraps), Scorsese decided to take an epic approach to documenting the concert. Despite Robbie Robertson's desire to keep it simple and shoot with just a couple of 16mm setups, Scorsese decided to document the historic occasion using seven top-of-the-line 35mm cameras, manned by some of the best cinematographers in the biz--Michael Chapman (Raging Bull), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces) included.

The film is infamous for the massive amount of drugs used on set by both musical performers and film crew. While drug use is not overtly shown (with the exception of a couple joints being passed around), the backstage interviews make it quite obvious. It's incredible that communication could even take place between the massively coked-up Scorsese and the pot, smack & 'lude fueled Band members. It's funny as hell to watch Scorsese unable to sit in his seat, pupils the size of dinner plates and talking faster than the Micro Machines guy while Robbie Robertson and crew seem sucked into the couch, immobilized, with droopy eyelids. Rumor also has it that a large cluster of cocaine that was hanging from Neil Young's nose during his performance had to be rotoscoped out in post!

Despite the huge production, difficult musicians (one of the film's top stars, Bob Dylan, nearly refused to be filmed) and more white powder than a Killington ski trail, "The Last Waltz" went on to be a success, and has stood the test of time. A remastered DVD and CD box set were recently released, as well as a critical re-evaluation of the film, which Michael Wilmington called "the greatest rock concert movie ever made – and maybe the best rock movie, period."

#4 - "Don't Look Back" (Bob Dylan)

Ok, it's no secret to those of you who read this blog on a fairly regular basis that I'm a pretty big Dylan nut. I own pretty much every Dylan studio album release (on CD and vinyl) as well as a large number of bootlegs. And as anyone who has ever gone camping with me can attest to, I even taught myself to play most of his songs on guitar and harmonica. My name is Jay and I am a Dylanholic.

However, "Don't Look Back" didn't make it to my Top Five based on its Bobness alone--notice the absence of "Festival", "Renaldo and Clara", "Hearts of Fire", "Masked and Anonymous", etc. ("Eat The Document", the cinematic document of Dylan's legendary 1966 tour and my true favorite Dylan film, was omitted only because it has never been officially released). The reason why "Don't Look Back" made the list has more to do with its cinematic properties than the presence of Dylan.

While seeing a rock documentary with news-like hand-held, grainy footage and point-and-shoot compositions may seem cliched now, the approach was fairly revolutionary in 1965 when "Don't Look Back" was made. The director, D.A. Pennebaker, was a pioneer of the style/genre that would come to be known as "cinema verite". Verite (or "film truth") was an attempt to capture a journalistic sense of objectivity in documentary filmmaking, where the camera became an unjudgemental, all-seeing eye. The movement came part from theory and part from technology--the then-recent invention of small, portable 16mm film cameras, unobtrusive "long" telephoto lenses, and high-speed film stock that could capture images with minimal lighting made it possible for filmmakers to go places and see things that they never could before.

In order for Cinema Verite to work its intended purpose however, it requires not only distance between subject and camera, but a nearly miraculous ability for the subject to completely forget they are being filmed. Pennebaker had worked on a film that had become the icon for this, Robert Drew's "Primary", where presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphries were so preoccupied with their tense primary debates and campaigning that they dropped their guard and allowed the camera to pick up some very intimate moments on the campaign trial.

The lack of self-consciousness needed for Verite makes rock stars simultaneously the best and worst subjects for this type of filmmaking, a conflict which is perhaps the reason why "Don't Look Back" is so interesting. Dylan's massive ego and desire to posture & ham it up for the camera (the pseudo-rivalry with Donovan theme is a good example) makes objectivity nearly impossible, while the distractions of exhaustion from non-stop performing and traveling, the dulling of the senses caused from sleep deprivation, drinking & drug use and the dizzying spotlight of celebrity (the camera becomes just another of the thousands of eyes watching you) make him an ideal subject. In fact, the film itself is just as much about the duality of "The Artist Known As Dylan" and trappings of celebrity (i.e. what happens when a folk poet with a cult following turns into a pop superstar) as it is about the music itself.

It also doesn't hurt that Pennebaker's film captures an interesting moment in both rock music and Dylan's history. It was the 1965 tour, a major turning point for Dylan when he was just about to transform from folk-commie poster boy to the Electric Rimbaud who would soon get booed off the stage at the Newport Folk Festival and create the "thin, wild mercury sound" of Blonde on Blonde. While still performing completely acoustic in "Don't Look Back", Dylan had released "Bringing It All Back Home" shortly before filming started and the response of his fans to his musical evolution was overwhelmingly negative ("it doesn't even sound like you"). It is also interesting to see the juxtaposition of early clips of a rag-tag Guthrie clone performing "With God On Our Side" in 1963 vs. the hipster Dylan of '65 wearing dark sunglasses indoors and shopping for electric guitars (or mod clothes in the "Dylan 65 Revisited" supplementary film released this year).

Shortly after the release of "Don't Look Back", a severe post-modern critical backlash against cinema verite filmmaking came about (possibly the best being Jim McBride's mock-verite film "David Holtzman's Diary"), exploring the idea that there is no such thing as objectivity in filmmaking since a director makes the subjective decisions about what he/she films, what edits are made, which filmstock and f-stop is used, and most importantly, the fact that people can never truly be "themselves" on camera. In fact, these charges apply well to Pennebaker's film, most noticeably when you compare it to his recently released "Dylan 65 Revisited", a one-hour film created from clips from the "Don't Look Back" editing room floor. It becomes obvious that Pennebaker chose to represent only one side of Dylan's nature in the film: the sullen, brooding angry poet, and not the smiling, fun-loving kid that is seen extensively in "Dylan 65 Revisited". Regardless, verite was still an interesting experiment and "Don't Look Back" was one of its most intriguing and entertaining films.

#3 - "Benjamin Smoke" (Smoke)

When people find out I majored in film in college, the two questions I hear most (besides "what, are you an idiot?) is "what is your favorite film?" and "who is your favorite director?" While the former question is difficult to answer and changes quite frequently, I usually answer the latter quite easily--Jem Cohen.

I was first introduced to Cohen's work in my junior year during an experimental film course I was taking. We watched "Lost Book Found" and it absolutely blew me away--the hauntingly stark wide-angle landscapes, the familiar yet frightening everyday objects, the collage of different film & video mediums, the intriguing blend of experimentation and narrative, the beautiful gamelan was the most perfect thing I had ever seen. Jem Cohen had made the film I had wanted to make my whole life, but just never knew it.

Soon I picked up all of the Cohen films I could find, a difficult feat considering most of them are short experimental works that are only available for online rental to institutions, made to be screened at museums and galleries. However, a couple of Cohen's films are widely available on DVD; they are his music documentaries, "Instrument" (Fugazi) and his collaboration with "Old Joy" cinematographer Peter Sillen, "Benjamin Smoke".

I love and hate "Benjamin Smoke". I love it because it is one of the most beautiful, disturbing and human films I ever seen. I hate it because I envy Cohen for being able to make the types of films I would love to be making, blending my love of experimental music with experimental documentary film. I have never watched a movie that so perfectly combines the mood of a music with the images and environment that the sounds were created in and, in turn, evoke.

Like all of Cohen's films, "Benjamin Smoke" is not only about its subject (in this case, the eccentric front man of the Athens, GA band Smoke, Benjamin) but also about the dirty little industrial suburb where he lives called Cabbagetown, the bizarre inhabitants of the neighborhood and the wild collage of a house that Benjamin isolates himself in when he's not playing music. Benjamin, it is revealed is a former punk rock musician, a gay transvestite and a drug addict. By the end of the film, it is also revealed the Benjamin is dying of AIDS, a disease that would take his life shortly after filming for the documentary concluded.

More than any of these things though, Benjamin is revealed to be an iconoclastic and impassioned artist with labyrinthine and often amusingly insightful trains of thought. Although he recognizes that he has made mistakes in his life, he refuses to apologize for the type of person that he is: a free-thinking, free-living musician who always maintains a sense of peace and compassion that belies his wild appearance and lifestyle.

I won't say anymore about this film because it's incredibly difficult to describe. It gains its power more from vague images and connections than it does through direct plot or performance footage alone. Even if you aren't really into more avant-garde types of films, it's worth watching alone for the music--Smoke sounds like a tag-sale Tom Waits, a lo-fi haunting gypsy blues with lyrics that crawl up your skin. Just rent it. You won't be sorry.

#2 - "Meeting People Is Easy" (Radiohead)

I can still remember quite clearly the mania that resulted in the music world when Radiohead released OK Computer a decade ago. After the death of Kurt Cobain and a strange subsequent rise in the popularity of white R&B boy bands and electronic music, it seemed like the small revolution that the grunge movement had started in re-popularizing guitar-based rock had crumbled. That is, until Thom Yorke and company released a Floydian epic concept album that was a huge commercial and critical success. Suddenly, the Oxford quartet (only a few years out from being called a one-hit wonder with "Creep") were being touted as "the saviors of rock music" and OK Computer was being called the defining album of a generation.

No wonder they went IDM with Kid A.

Directed by Grant Gee (the director of the band's disturbingly beautiful "No Surprises" video), "Meeting People Is Easy" is a portrait of Radiohead at the peak of their success, following them through the ups and downs of a sold-out worldwide tour to promote their masterpiece album. Shot in an experimental collage style that utilizes various formats of film, video and still photography, the film favors cinematic Hegelian dialectics and odd juxtapositions of sight and sound that are at times deeply symbolic and complementary and other times deliberately conflicting and alienating. Rarely is there sync sound in this film, as strange images coincide with endless radio and television interview sound bites that start becoming indistinguishable from each other after a while.

The film is, in both form and content, a brilliant exploration of the theme of isolation in a world of globalized economies and homogenized cultures. Gee captures desolate post-industrial landscapes in dozens of cities that seem to all look alike after a while. The film reflects this with a type of cinematic Esperanto, showing endless successions of symbols and signs; while nearly the entire film is in English, it doesn't really make a difference. In a post-modern, technology-driven world of high speed travel & communication, uniqueness is replaced by convenience, artistic creation is replaced by commercial image and marketable sights and sounds. It's a new dizzying, fast-paced world and Radiohead, a small band from England, find themselves stuck right in the middle of the whirlwind.

While this is not the first rock documentary to expose the less glamorous side of the music business, it is the first to make this topic its primary subject of exploration. Whether its the tribulations and monotony of life on the road, the endless and monotonous press interviews and photo sessions, the language barriers or the frustrations of wanting to make a new album while having to be a human jukebox for a crowd demanding your greatest hits, Radiohead is not having any fun on this tour and it shows. Instead of enjoying the spoils of success, Thom Yorke (the obvious protagonist of the film) Yorke comments to reporters about the trappings of success, the idea of being sucked into a lifestyle of "a job that slowly kills you" through its parasitic nature. Apparently being a rock star ain't all it's cracked up to be.

There was a bit of a backlash by the band after the film was released, claiming that it was a one-sided portrayal of the band at the time and was primarily responsible for the public perception of the band as a bunch of gloomy, brooding angsty artist types (I would argue they did a good job of creating this mythos themselves with "Creep" other songs). There was actually a lot of laughing and joviality on the tour (Yorke and Radiohead do have a sense of humor by the way) that Gee chose not to show. But that's his choice, and this isn't intended to be a verite film. Instead, he created a whole new genre of music documentary, the "anti-rockstar" doc, which influenced dozens of films that would follow it (most notably Air's "Eating, Sleeping, Waiting and Playing", the Wilco film "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" and "A Good Band is Hard To Kill", a portrait of Beulah).

#1 - "Gimme Shelter" (The Rolling Stones)

As far as I am concerned, the Maysles' Brothers' "Gimme Shelter" is the "Citizen Kane" of rock documentaries. It has everything, from some of the greatest live music footage ever filmed (by "The World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band") to Hell's Angels, drug-crazed hippies, and more. And most importantly, it actually records (and then slows down to display frame-by-frame) the moment when the hopes and dreams of the 1960's counterculture movement went up in smoke--the murder of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Motor Speedway.

While the Stones were pretty well associated with "the dark side" of the counterculture at this point (between the sexuality of their performances, their association with occultism and their hard drug use), "Gimme Shelter" was the final loss of any innocence they may have still maintained from the "Flowers" days. The film starts off in happier times, with the band having a goofy good time shooting the album cover for their wildly successful live album, "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!", followed by footage from their legendary Madison Square Garden show and footage of the relaxed and confident band in the studio, putting the finishing touches on one of their greatest songs, "Wild Horses" (from "Sticky Fingers").

Things go steadly downhill from here. With random intercutting of the band in the editing room, watching with a 20/20 hindsight, the Maysles' crew takes us into the office of the Stones' record executive who is trying to book a huge free concert. When an initial venue falls through, it is chosen that the band (along with several special guests) will play at the Altamont Motor Speedway. The generosity of a free concert quickly becomes overshadowed by the lack of planning and proper financing needed to make it a safe and successful event.

On the recommendation of the Grateful Dead, the Stones decided to hire the San Francisco chapter of the Hell's Angels to provide security at the show. Paying them little more than "all the free beer they could drink", the already unstable and testosterone fueled Angels went from security guards to drunken rampaging lunatics in a matter of hours. The stoned hippies who dared touch their bikes were stomped; Marty Ballin of Jefferson Airplane was punched in the face by an Angel & knocked out cold; Jerry Garcia and the Dead took one looked around and hopped back in the chopper and high-tailed it out of there. Meanwhile, the Stones just stayed in their trailer, adding unknown fuel to the fire.

What happens from here on out is pure chaos, a Dantean vision of a paradise lost in the midst of intoxication, insanity, demonic song & murder. Altamont not only destroyed the fragile and tentative myth of peace, tranquility and safety of 60's utopianism, it also marked the end of the same for the Rolling Stones as a band. Following the concert, the band would begin a gradual but steady decline in terms of their critical, commercial and creative success ("Exile On Main Street", a miracle in itself, would be the last of the great Stones albums starting with "Beggar's Banquet), as well as the mental and physical health of the band. Richard's would soon become a full-fledged heroin junkie and Jagger a society junkie, a split in personalities that would nearly break up the band a few years. "Gimme Shelter" records the time for the Stones when, as the great Dr. Hunter S. Thompson puts it, they "were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave" as well as showing the exact moment when "the wave finally broke and rolled back".

The Maysles' brothers' formalistic style in "Gimme Shelter", while certainly utilizing verite elements, was also pretty revolutionary for the time. After primary shooting had ended, they decided to film the band in the editing room reviewing the footage with Maysles as they responded to everything from the silly to the tragic (including Jagger watching the footage of Hunter being stabbed to death, frame by frame). While this might just seem like a gimmicky post-modern trick or an early version of the DVD commentary track, it is actually quite poignant when you consider the controversy about the festival that was still raging at that time.

Many blamed the band, their management and the film crew for what happened at Altamont--the concert was hastily put together and poorly financed mainly because the Stones were excited to make a concert film that could bring in big money while they were at their commercial peak. As a result, they cut corners financially and in terms of planning and preparation, creating a stifling atmosphere that was destined to turn violent. And despite their passive complicity in all of this tragedy, the band and the producers not only decided to still release the film but to embrace the sensationalism and included footage of the murder to help increase ticket sales. As a result, "Gimme Shelter" has long been a film of great interest in debates concerning filmmaker ethics.

Regardless (or maybe because of all this), "Gimme Shelter" is an amazingly complex and frightening work that only gets better and better with repeated viewings.


So that's it folks--the top ten. I'm sure there will be a lot of argument about the choices, and I greatly encourage you to challenge my decisions in the comments section. There are a few reasons that I may not have chose one of your favorites:

1) You have horrible taste in movies or music (just kidding; you're here aren't you?)

2) I haven't seen it. Although I'm a huge fan of rock documentaries, there are probably hundreds of them I haven't seen. A few on my list of must-sees are "Dig", "We Jam Econo", "The Decline of Western Civilization", "The Kids Are Alright" and dozens of others)

3) I deliberately decided to leave films that lacked an official theatrical or DVD release off of my list. As much as it pained me to leave off favorites like "Eat The Document", "Cocksucker Blues" and "Speed Racer: A Movie About Vic Chesnutt", I thought it was the best way to ensure that I didn't tease you with glowing descriptions of movies you may never have access to.

So that's it. It's been a lot of work, but I hope you enjoyed it. If you have any other ideas for a top ten list, just let me know.


Tanner M. said...


Anonymous said...

Nice list. Just one litle thing:

"Suddenly, the Oxford quartet (only a few years out from being called a one-hit wonder with "Creep") were being touted as "the saviors of rock music" and OK Computer was being called the defining album of a generation"

Radiohead has five members, not four. Quartet means a group of four :)

jay said...

Um....Thom Yorke, Colin Greenwood, Johnny Greenwood, Phil Selway. Unless you're counting the computer from "Fitter Happier", I'm not sure where you're getting the fifth member... :)

Anonymous said...

Well, you´r forgetting all about Ed. Ed O'Brien.

Back vocals, guitar....big fellow who loves denim :)

jay said...

Ahh.....yes, you're right. My bad!