As Eric Hynes recently observed in his cautionary overview of a considerably lucrative nonfiction subgenre, music documentaries are a high-profile and rewarding business whose obvious bottom-line incentives can rightfully draw suspicion as to filmmakers’ intentions. Yet the temptations for formula in music documentary filmmaking are rarely applied predictably: fascinating and overlooked topics can be executed without tangible care or an insightful perspective, and obvious topics can somehow inspire unique approaches to the art of nonfiction. Such tensions were pervasive throughout the wealth of music documentaries in a year that somehow found Nina Simone’s story in want of a subtler hand yet produced innovative works dedicated to three eternal figures of the 27 Club: Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain. But, rest assured, this jam-packed year of music documentaries wasn’t only about dead stars. Here are the best of the bunch.
As the highest-grossing documentary of the year and an Oscar front-runner, Asif Kapadia’s Amy has received its requisite pushback. Indeed, using an archive of media to chronicle the life and death of one of the most ubiquitously mediated celebrities of the 21st century might risk being such an obvious technique as to have Kapadia’s strengths go unnoticed. Unlike his previous archival bio-drama, Senna, Kapadia is telling a story that many watching the film will already know full well. Yet that’s exactly what Amy proposes: to view a star through the lenses that both made her famous and arguably took a complicit role in her death. Kapadia’s gradual but haunting transition from Amy Winehouse’s home movies to wall-to-wall coverage of her self-destruction confronts its audience with (and includes itself in) piercing questions about living and dying in the modern media spotlight, questions that it refuses to concisely answer.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock ’n’ Roll
As I wrote in my review, John Pirozzi’s essential Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock ’n’ Roll “not only surveys a vast archive of Cambodian popular music produced from the 1950s to the Khmer Rouge’s occupation, but it uses this music as an insightful platform from which to examine the devastating and long-lasting affects bloody global conflicts have on culture. This is a fascinating, beautifully realized story that urgently needs telling and a history very much deserving of a recovery.” The film challenges “the sense of permanence we typically assume of commercial popular music … Pirozzi excavates the past as a means of fighting an injustice after the fact.”
Despite the epic irreverence of Inherent Vice, I can’t think of a time in which Paul Thomas Anderson has seemed to have this much fun through filmmaking since Punch Drunk Love’s “Mattress Man” commercials. Using a combination of handheld and drone-rigged cameras to capture the recording of Junun in Rajasthan, India — an album composed by The Rajasthan Express, Shy Ben Tzur, and PTA composer/Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood — Junun the film offers a unique lens into a process rarely given the feature treatment: that is, the work of recording an album as a unique type of concert, a musical performance meant for fellow musicians. While most who encounter Junun will likely do so because of two big names in front of and behind the camera, both Anderson and Greenwood thankfully serve the music, playfully enjoying the duration of seeing an ambitious collaboration to completion.
A Poem is a Naked Person
When country rock musician Leon Russell commissioned Les Blank to follow him on tour and in the recording studio for a feature documentary in the early 1970s, he perhaps assumed that Blank would be making something along the lines of the Maysles brothers’ and D.A. Pennebaker’s rock ’n’ roll portraits of the era — a honky-tonk Dont Look Back, perhaps. What Russell got instead was a bona fide Les Blank movie: a heterogeneous work of art as interested in American folk traditions of glass-eating and barbecue as it is in Russell’s life and work as a musician. The subject of A Poem is a Naked Person is hardly Russell himself, but a greater realm of social activity of which Russell is only a part, a country culture never distilled or defined in Blank’s joyous meditation on Americana. Now that we can finally see the end result more than 40 years after its completion, the late Blank might be the most innovative music documentarian of 2015.
Forget Straight Outta Compton. This year’s most significant motion picture event in the recent push for a historical canon of hip-hop is Shan Nicholson’s Rubble Kings, which details the story of rival New York gangs in the 1970s whose emerging involvement with music eventually birthed those unique sounds of the South Bronx. More of a musical pre-history whose inciting subject does not arrive until the end, the brisk but potent Rubble Kings is a powerful and specific corrective for received histories of hip-hop’s origins, gang violence, and 1970s New York. Equally interested in empirical history as it is in boisterous myth shared between its subjects, Rubble Kings is as much an important piece in the hip-hop puzzle as it is an engaging and vigorous re-creation of the past.
Seymour: An Introduction
With all due respect to Richard Linkater’s formidable muse, Seymour: An Introduction is the least Ethan Hawke-y thing Ethan Hawke has ever done, principally because Hawke has clearly cultivated such an intimate relationship with his subject that he all but erases himself throughout his camera’s encounter with Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist who long ago left a brightening spotlight for a quiet, more focused relationship with his instrument. A delicately realized, uniquely patient film that glides through Bernstein’s graceful implementation of his philosophy of life in relation to his music, Seymour: An Introduction insightfully explores how an “artist at work” is really an artist for whom “work” is inseparable from anything else. Amongst its many revelations, Hawke’s film explores how fame can be a serious detriment to one’s preferred vessel of artistry.
Bonus: Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee
Seth Myers, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen’s Documentary Now! reveled expertly in one of the most narrow in-jokes that cable television has ever produced. And their dedication to nonfiction genre detail was perhaps most fully realized with this season-ending two-part music documentary on “the Blue Jean Committee,” and Eagles-like band riding the 1970s wave of California rock all the way from the surf-free culture of Chicago. With their remarkably specific take on rockumentary clichés — the rise-and-fall-narrative imbued with inevitability, sleek talking head interviews contrasted with scratchy archival footage, canned summaries of band disputes — “Gentle and Soft” is less a probing send-up of weren’t-they-great music docs and more of an adoring re-creation of the genre’s contrivances and the music that makes even the most paint-by-numbers music doc hard to resist. To make certain their dedication to the genre extended to its obvious commercialism, Documentary Now!’s completist parody even produced an EP.