10 Best Music Documentaries of 2014

By Andy Markowitz

The Possibilities Are Endless

‘The Possibilities Are Endless’ (Pulse Films)

When I first did this list for Nonfics last year, it was headlined “10 Best Music Documentaries of the Year According to the Guy Who Sees Them All.” It may be headlined the same this year, for all I know; I’m not the editor around here. I was flattered at being granted such an aura of expertise, but in the interests of modesty and full disclosure I should say that I don’t actually see them all. I do see an awful lot of them, though. Some of the ones below will be familiar to Nonfics readers, but some may not. I live in the UK, and my eligibility criteria extends to movies that played widely on the international festival circuit as well as those that opened theatrically and/or digitally in the States.

There’s a perception, I think, that the box-office and Oscar success of Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet from Stardom put music docs over some sort of hump, and that’s true to a point. A lot more music docs that aren’t about big-name acts get distribution these days. But a lot of very worthy ones don’t (the high cost of music licensing, a particular bugbear for the this genre, plays a part in that). I hope whatever moderate authority seeing that awful lot confers on me encourages you to seek out these films should they come your way.

There may be a perception as well that the lack of a Sugar Man/20 Feet-style breakout made it a down year for music docs. But I think the form got over a different kind of hump this year, embracing the larger documentary trend of stretching nonfiction narrative into interesting new shapes. The ones that did so were, for me, among the most emotionally and visually resonant documentaries of 2014, and they had some fabulous music as well. What’s better than that?

1. The Possibilities Are Endless (Edward Lovelace and James Hall, UK)

Edwyn Collins, the Scottish singer-songwriter best known in the UK for fronting ’80s post-punk band Orange Juice and everywhere else for his out-of-the-blue mid-’90s solo hit “A Girl Like You,” suffered a catastrophic stroke in 2005 that more or less wiped clean his brain. Named for a phrase that was inexplicably on Collins’s lips when he emerged from a coma, The Possibilities Are Endless chronicles his recovery — or, more to the point, his intensely personal experience of recovery, and that of his redoubtable wife, Grace Maxwell — with structural daring, visual imagination, and sublime empathy. Starting with a nearly abstract 20-minute sequence that beautifully evokes the torturous mental jigsaw to which Collins awoke, directing partners Lovelace and Hall gently guide the story into clarity and focus as Collins reconstructs his identity and regains language, memory, humor, music, and love.

2. Led Zeppelin Played Here (Jeff Krulik, USA)

Digging into a bit of Washington, DC-area rock apocrypha — an urban legend that a nascent Zep played a sparsely attended January 1969 show at a local youth center, of which there are eyewitness accounts but no hard evidence — Krulik (of Heavy Metal Parking Lot fame) playfully limns the narrative tension between the vividly remembered and the coldly factual while delightfully excavating a lost world of rock promotion where boss jocks booked shows on the fly and the Stooges might headline your weekend teen dance.

3. 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, UK)

Forsyth, Pollard and Nick Cave artfully re-imagine the elements of biographical music documentary — the interviews are dream conversations, the archive an administrative reverie — to construct a portrait of the artist that is precisely sculpted yet feels intimate, insightful and, yes, real. And the closing concert sequence is the most galvanizing gig footage I saw this year.

4. Revenge of the Mekons (Joe Angio, USA)

Angio relates the story of “the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ’n’ roll” (per the late, great critic Lester Bangs) as a series of challenges The Mekons faced down in their own iconoclastic way — and in the telling captures what it is about this creatively restless, historically minded, industry-allergic and seriously funny punk-folk-art-country collective that has kept the band going for 35 determinedly non-lucrative years and drawn a tiny but rabidly engaged community of fans.

5. The Case of the Three Sided Dream (Adam Kahan, USA)

Kahan explores the genius and obsessions of protean jazz virtuoso Rahsaan Roland Kirk with acute observation and a funky visual sense that’s wholly appropriate to the story of a guy known for his ability to blow three saxes at once.

6. My Prairie Home (Chelsea McMullan, Canada)

Transgender electro/country singer-songwriter Rae Spoon’s escape from a terrifyingly Pentecostal upbringing in Alberta to personal and creative self-actualization is told in jaunty, touching fashion through disarmingly un-self-conscious interviews, stylishly stylized musical numbers and long bus rides under the vast western Canadian sky.

7. The Winding Stream (Beth Harrington, USA)

A deeply satisfying traditional doc about deeply satisfying traditional music that balances reverence and dramatic edge in tracing the history, monumental legacy and tangled relationships of country music progenitors the Carter Family. Added emotional heft comes from Johnny Cash, poignantly frail but still wicked sharp in one of his last interviews.

8. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (Florian Habicht, UK)

This celebratory souffle of a Pulp doc may be light on band history and critical insight, but its sidelong glances at Jarvis Cocker and company’s personalities and director Habicht’s wide-eyed delight in plumbing the ties that bind the band to its hometown of Sheffield offer a more compelling, and affecting, view of how the place informed Pulp, and vice versa.

9. Shield and Spear (Petter Ringbom, USA/South Africa)

A fascinating look at South Africa 20 years after apartheid as viewed by a bevy of creatively bursting musicians and artists who assess the state of the would-be “rainbow nation,” casting an optimistic eye on its democratic, pluralistic future while raising their voices and wielding their talents to challenge the creeping authoritarianism of its present.

10. Zivan Makes a Punk Festival (Ognjen Glavonic, Serbia)

A misfit small-town Serb doggedly puts on his annual music fest in the face of community indifference, unreliable mates and utter brokeitude in this sweetly comic paean to DIY punk perseverance.

Honorable mentions:

American Interior (Dylan Goch, UK)

Jingle Bell Rocks! (Mitchell Kezin, Canada)

Nas: Time Is Illmatic (One9, USA)

This May Be the Last Time (Sterlin Harjo, USA)

When he’s not watching, writing about, or thinking about music films, Andy Markowitz is a content wrangler for hire with more than 20 years experience as a journalist and critic. He is a former editor of the alternative weekly Baltimore City Paper, where he won a national award for arts writing. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Guardian, Transitions Online, TimeOutPrague, and Cinefantastique Magazine, among other publications. Andy is currently based in Sheffield, UK, home of Def Leppard, Heaven 17, and Pulp. The first album he ever bought was Led Zeppelin IV.