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The 10 Greatest Rockumentaries of All-Time

The 10 Greatest Rockumentaries of All-Time

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Not very many rock concert documentaries are chosen to serve as the opening night attraction of the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival. Then again, not many “rockumentaries” feature one of the world’s greatest living directors chronicling one of the world’s greatest living rock bands.

Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited film about the Rolling Stones, kicked off the German fest with a bang, premiering at the event prior to its April release in the United States.

As evidenced by his acclaimed documentaries on The Band (The Last Waltz) and Bob Dylan (No Direction Home), Scorsese has a unique affinity for fusing contemporary rock music and cinema. He has a particular connection with the Stones, too; their music has appeared in his work dating as far back as 1973’s Mean Streets and as recently as 2006’s The Departed (perhaps it’s time to give “Gimme Shelter” a rest) and has driven some of the moviemaker’s most memorable sequences.

Shine a Light, a more modest achievement than Scorsese’s previous forays into nonfiction music moviemaking, doesn’t attempt to offer a comprehensive overview of the Stones’ long career—such an enterprise would likely even surpass the Dylan doc’s exhaustive 207-minute running time. Instead it largely focuses on the band’s 2006 concert at New York City’s Beacon Theater, featuring guest appearances by figures as varied as Bill Clinton and Christina Aguilera. Scorsese captures the energy of a Stones concert perfectly, and his accomplishment reminds one of the scarcity of truly exceptional rockumentaries in today’s cinema. If the 1960s and ’70s represented the apex of the rockumentary, 21st-century music films tend to be little more than promotional puff-pieces with film grammar derived from decades of music videos. Today’s rockumentaries seemingly serve only to satisfy the specific musical cravings of core fans and are rarely cinematic triumphs in their own right. Whatever you may think about anyone from U2 to Miley Cyrus, 3D spectacles devoted to their live shows aren’t likely to stand the cinematic test of time.

With that in mind, MM decided to highlight the 10 best, or at least most culturally significant, rockumentaries of all time, with the one condition that they are all currently available on DVD for your home viewing and listening pleasure. This rules out some notable titles—Robert Frank’s controversial Stones documentary, Cocksucker Blues (1972), and Steve Binder’s dynamic R&B revue, The T.A.M.I. Show (1964), are two prominent omissions as a result. But the following 10 should certainly keep your home theater speakers busy for quite some time.

Don’t Look Back (1967)
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Docurama, $19.95 ($49.95 for box set)
There were certainly other nonfiction films devoted to popular music prior to this groundbreaking work by D.A. Pennebaker, but to honestly examine the evolution of this documentary subgenre, it’s an inarguably logical decision to start here. Though Bob Dylan was only just starting to “go electric” around the time the film was shot, so it’s as much a “folkumentary” as anything else, Pennebaker’s verité study of Dylan’s famous 1965 U.K. concert tour established the template for the observational rockumentaries that would follow. It alternates performance footage with interviews and conversations of a semi-revealing quality (this is Dylan, after all) and includes appearances from Joan Baez and Donovan. The film is not only a fascinating portrait of one of the past century’s most enigmatic musical artists, but also a memorable snapshot of a specific cultural era and artistic movement. The Docurama DVD box set, which even includes the legendary “Subterranean Homesick Blues” clip, is a treasure for Dylan fans. It contains a 168-page book, a second disc of previously unseen outtakes and a wealth of supplementary features.
Monterey Pop (1968)
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Criterion Collection, $29.95 ($79.95 for box set)
With the exception of Scorsese, most directors are lucky to manage even one notable rockumentary, let alone multiple entries in the category. Pennebaker’s astonishing one-two punch is one for the record books. The director virtually established the music documentary as an exciting new medium with Don’t Look Back, then—just one year later—he defined the rock festival film with the equally innovative Monterey Pop, a documentary on the 1967 music fest of the same name.

Pennebaker’s film perfectly captures the genuinely hopeful and exuberant mood of the era’s counterculture youth, moving from footage of the concert’s preparation as a labor of love to interviews with excited attendees. Of course, the music is unbeatable, featuring career-best performances from the likes of Janis Joplin, The Who, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix (the last two historic sets were also released in full as Shake! Otis at Monterey and Jimi Plays Monterey, both of which are included in the Criterion Collection’s essential DVD box set). A beautiful performance by Ravi Shankar, met with a refreshingly appreciative audience response, is the culmination of a film that could quite possibly be the greatest rockumentary ever made.

Woodstock (1970)
Director: Michael Wadleigh
Warner Home Video, $19.98
It may be heresy among rockumentary devotees to make such a proclamation, but it must be stated anyway: Woodstock is not a very good film. While probably the best-known example of the genre—the event itself is a single-word shorthand used to describe an entire generation’s sociopolitical concerns—Michael Wadleigh’s epic film about the three-day 1969 rock fest pales in comparison to Monterey Pop. The self-absorbed interviews and gimmicky techniques (a bouncing ball over the lyrics, the use of split screen, etc.) seem painfully dated, and even the music doesn’t compare to the superior performances in Pennebaker’s film. Yes, there are noteworthy sets (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Hendrix), but there’s also a lot of painful filler (Sha Na Na, anyone?). Still, the film is of undeniable historical importance, not only for the event itself, but also for giving Scorsese his roots in the rockumentary field as an assistant director and co-editor on the film (working with his now longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, in both capacities). The DVD of the film may actually be out-of-print by the time you read this, as Warner Bros. plans on temporarily removing the title from circulation in preparation for a remastered special-edition DVD to be released next year.

Gimme Shelter (1970)
Directors: Albert and David Maysles
Criterion Collection, $39.95
This masterpiece from veteran documentarians Albert and David Maysles (in collaboration with Charlotte Zwerin) is like the angry, dangerous black sheep of the rock festival family. While Monterey Pop is perhaps the best study of the actual music of the era, the Maysles’ spellbinding movie is the defining cinematic analysis of the period. The Maysles brothers began by chronicling the preparations for the Rolling Stones’ free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway in 1969 (and the recording sessions for what would ultimately become their album “Sticky Fingers”), but stumbled into a violent maelstrom that encapsulated the dark side of the peace and love generation in a drug-addled, Manson-era freefall. Chaotic and disorganized at best, the Altamont concert descended into mayhem when the Hells Angels, who were unwisely hired as show security, fatally stabbed an audience member during a fight. Gimme Shelter is every bit as contemporary today as it was 38 years ago. It’s a grim and unsettling exploration of cultural upheaval, violent crime and the perils of fame—and an astounding concert film as well. In addition to the Stones, Gimme Shelter features performances by Jefferson Airplane and Tina Turner, among others. Criterion’s DVD is among the company’s best offerings, with a bounty of special features that expertly contextualize the film.
Wattstax (1973)
Director: Mel Stuart
Warner Home Video, $19.98
Criminally underrated and largely unseen for decades, this electrifying look at an all-day celebration of R&B and soul in L.A.’s African-American Watts district is finally beginning to receive some long-overdue recognition as one of the 1970s’ key music documentaries. Produced by the Stax record label as an alternative to white-dominated music festivals for the black community, the Wattstax event featured performances by Isaac Hayes, Luther Ingram, The Staple Singers and Rufus Thomas, who is hilarious in his interactions with the crowd. In addition to the music, director Mel Stuart (who also helmed Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) incorporates stand-up comedy from Richard Pryor, speeches from Jesse Jackson and interviews with Watts residents, forming a rich filmic tapestry of African-American life during this period. It might not be a “rockumentary” in the truest sense—the performance by The Bar-Kays, resplendent in white afro wigs, defies any categorization—but it is one of the best pop music films ever made.

The Last Waltz (1978)
Director: Martin Scorsese
MGM Home Entertainment, $14.98
Along with 1984’s Stop Making Sense, The Last Waltz stands as a textbook example of how one should photograph and edit a concert film. One would expect nothing less from Scorsese, on hand to record The Band’s 1976 Thanksgiving Day farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Theater. The set would have made for a superlative rockumentary in and of itself (their live performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” might be the best recording of that song), but to note that they said goodbye with a little help from their friends would be an understatement. The Band is joined by Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, an unusually exuberant Van Morrison, The Staple Singers, Ron Wood, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond (don’t laugh, it’s actually a great number) and Dr. John, among others. Scorsese captures these once-in-a-lifetime acts with admirably no-frills restraint. Ironically, for such a rock-driven project, this is among the director’s most classically composed, sedate films, which lets the music take center stage, so to speak. The film is occasionally weighed down by interviews with Robbie Robertson and his cohorts that seem pretentious by today’s standards—musicians are almost always better when they’re playing—but that’s one minor quibble with this classic.

Style Wars (1983)
Directors: Henry Chalfant & Tony Silver
Passion River Films, $27.95
Style Wars might seem like an odd selection for a list of great rockumentaries, as the film doesn’t cover the terrain of rock ‘n’ roll, but rather the early days of hip-hop and rap. Also, music isn’t the central focus of the film. Instead, the film records the graffiti spray-painted onto subways and buildings by young artists expressing themselves with limited means. As a picture of inner-city life in New York in the early 1980s, it stands as one of the first features to depict the graffiti subculture, breakdancing and early hip-hop and rap, featuring key early tracks from the likes of the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash. Although neither a rock film nor a concert movie, Style Wars does what only the best music documentaries manage to do: It not only spotlights groundbreaking music, but also offers a unique glimpse of a very specific era and cultural movement.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Palm Pictures/Universal Music, $29.98
Jonathan Demme’s film of a Talking Heads concert (actually several concerts edited together as a single performance) deserves comparison with The Last Waltz for the grace and simplicity with which it frames live music—long takes, impeccable camerawork and a decidedly non-flashy focus on musical craft and the joy of performance. It’s undoubtedly not coincidental that the two most cinematically proficient concert films on this list come from master moviemakers Scorsese and Demme, as the adeptness displayed in their fiction work clearly translates into their live music documentaries. It’s also interesting to note that Stop Making Sense is the only film among these 10 that thrives by limiting itself to a single band, depicted only in live concert footage (there are no interviews)—yet still stands as one of the most hypnotic of all contemporary music documentaries.

Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!(1987)
Director: Taylor Hackford
Image Entertainment, $49.99
While much of the music in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll! is indisputably great, it’s not necessarily the most compelling ingredient in the film, and the documentary would probably not make this list based on its concert footage alone. Taylor Hackford—who directed the Oscar-winning biopic Ray—surveys the preparation behind a concert honoring Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday in the rock icon’s hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Berry collaborates with his show’s musical director and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, creating an often combative dynamic which forms the dramatic focus of Hackford’s documentary. Richards obviously idolizes Berry, but this respect soon gives way to tension, as the elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll is none too eager to defer to Richards’ instructions, particularly when it comes to the simple matter of rehearsals, which Berry regards with disinterest. Still, when the big night occurs, there can be no debating the results: Berry and Richards, joined by such figures as Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James and Robert Cray, put on a fantastic show. The film also features interviews with musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, all of whom discuss Berry’s influence on their own work. Undeservedly neglected, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll at least received an exhaustive four-disc special-edition release in 2006.

The Filth and the Fury (2000)
Director: Julien Temple
New Line Home Entertainment, $19.88
It would initially seem unlikely that a documentary on the history of the Sex Pistols would emerge as the most emotionally moving rockumentary of this group, but this is indeed the case. Julien Temple has made a career out of projects that embrace U.K. rock and pop, both in fiction (his wrongfully maligned Absolute Beginners) and nonfiction (Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten), but this is his best work. Temple collaborated with the Pistols on early film projects (perhaps The Filth and the Fury could be considered a late apology for the mess that is Temple’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle), so his longtime friendship with the band’s members undoubtedly gives him a unique degree of unprecedented, intimate access. Interweaving performance clips, rare TV appearances and footage of mid-to-late 1970s Brit punk life (the film is an excellent snapshot of punk’s nascent days) with contemporary interviews with the band (photographed only in silhouetted form), The Filth and the Fury is a heartfelt and affectionate depiction of a band and subculture that shined very brightly—and all too briefly—making this essential viewing, even for non-Pistols fans.

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