While there exist notable documentaries about beloved musicians like Tom Petty, John Lennon and Philip Glass, most of the effort in nonfiction films about music strives to highlight the underrated and under-heard. With the critical and commercial success of Searching for Sugar Man, resurrecting under-appreciated musical personalities has proven to be lucrative, interesting and even (that most dreaded word in music) mainstream.
Many music documentaries this year poised to reveal the Next Great Untold Story about music’s past and present. Sample This! illustrates how one song had an immeasurable influence on the development of hip-hop, while Artifact offers a lens into a music business crumbling apart in the 21st century. Good Ol’ Freda gives a microphone to the woman who connected The Beatles with their fans, while 20 Feet from Stardom places background singers front and center. Meanwhile, The Punk Singer and A Band Called Death show that punk has never been exclusively for angry white men. All in all, 2013 was a rich year for music documentaries.
But never mind the bollocks. Here are five films that 2013 added to this ever-expanding subgenre, all of which deserve a place in the documentary (and musical) canon.
Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm
Getting old is truly a drag. Completed before its subject’s death but released almost exactly a year after, Jacob Hatley’s film is a fly-on-the-wall portrait of the latter days of the former drummer for The Band. Neither a docu-biopic nor a eulogy, I Ain’t In It for My Health is a touching and intimate character study that allows Helm to wear both his past and his present on his fragile but sprightly body. Centered largely around Helm’s preparation for a Grammy lifetime achievement performance, the intermittent recording of a new record and several profoundly discomfiting visits to the doctor, this film intuitively and insightfully captures both the toll of growing old and the burden of carrying a renowned musical history. I Ain’t In It for My Health is not only a great portrait of Helm, but it is the best film about aging since Amour.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Death. Anvil. Rodriguez. Many documentaries have attempted to make their case for the great unsung heroes of rock. But none stage their argument as convincingly or comprehensively as Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s investigation of the inventive ’70s group Big Star. Nothing Can Hurt Me exhaustively covers the band’s Tennessee home life, difficult studio history, juicy interpersonal spats, staggered post-band careers and belated cult reception. But even more impressively, the film communicates its love for Big Star via an overview of the band’s enthusiastic critical reception and fan base, the detail of which rivals the film’s portrayal of the band itself. No hyperbole is needed in making the case that Big Star was one of rock’s biggest missing chapters, as DeNicola and Mori have clearly done their homework.
Some of the best R&B and soul music of the 1960s was recorded at a modest studio in an unbelievably tiny Alabama town during the heat of the Civil Rights movement. Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier lets Muscle Shoals — that is, the studio producers and musicians, the performers and the rural landscape itself — tell its own history sans third-person narration and an oversimplifying timeline. What’s most remarkable about Muscle Shoals is its patience. The film’s meditative mood and deliberate pace, continually interrupted by fantastic music, captures the emotive experience of what it must have been like to record such groundbreaking music outside of the typical metropolitan hubs of New York City and Detroit. Come for the great tunes, stay for the hilarious anecdote about The Rolling Stones’ lack of substance abuse while recording Sticky Fingers, and ignore the Bono if possible. But most importantly, see this instead of that other studio doc about Dave Grohl turning a soundboard into a piece of furniture.
Available on iTunes. Out on DVD and Amazon Instant Video Feb. 25, 2014.
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Easily the best of several notable documentaries released this year about punk, Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s film about the infamous Russian feminist rock activists urgently reminds us of the unique power of dissident art. During its HBO premiere this summer, A Punk Prayer just so happened to be broadcast during the Russian government’s much-publicized crackdown on “gay propaganda.” While A Punk Prayer is certainly a kinetic and informative document on the band’s history, tactics and controversies, the film illustrates more broadly the conflict between a nation’s gestures toward democracy and its privileging of an orthodox culture. Pussy Riot’s trial, jailing and ongoing repression not only structure this rich essay on culture’s role in creating democratic discourse and realizing truly free speech, but it also captures the uncertain socio-political moment Russia currently finds itself in. Perhaps this documentary’s greatest accomplishment is its promulgation of genuine hope for the future against the incredible difficulties of the present.
Available on HBO (next airing: Dec. 24), HBO On Demand and HBO GO.
The Source Family
“Music documentary” might not be the first thing that comes to mind to describe this exploration of a 1970s Southern California cult movement. But music in Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos’s The Source Family provides the meeting point between ethical dieting and a radically transcendent type of living. In other words, music here is the glue that unites countercultural practices and philosophical ideas. Led by the gargantuan Father Yod (who fronted the psychedelic band Ya Ho Wa 13), The Source Family was a vegan restaurant-turned-commune whose earthly and interdependent practices eventually led (as cults do) to ego worship of its leader. The film The Source Family is a fascinating time capsule of a utopian moment in American cultural history that simultaneously brought out the most productive and destructive instincts in people. And of course, history provided this strange and amazing story with an appropriately trippy soundtrack.