There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 or so minutes. With this now-quarterly column we'll be highlighting some of the most recent and / or soon to be released music documentaries that are worth tracking down, adding to your watchlist, or just plain keeping your eyes peeled for.
To start things off, here's a truly great film about Grace Jones, an artist whose background has not been explored all that broadly. Directed by Sophie Fiennes, best known for her work with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema and The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami has been touring film festivals since late last year ahead of its April 13 American theatrical premier (and presumed eventual home on a streaming service of some kind).
Filmed over the course of Jones recording her 2008 album, Hurricane, Fiennes' film may have been percolating for almost a decade, but it's no worse for wear given the length of time spent in apparent post-production limbo. The timelessness of the final product is due to the fact that Bloodlight and Bami, a mashup of patois slang for the red "recording" light in a studio (bloodlight) and bread (bami), unfolds with no real central narrative thrust. Scenes flow from one to another with practically no clues as to where they fit into any perceived timeline. It took me a while to get my bearings, bouncing between time spent in recording studios, hanging out with family in Jamaica, and live performance footage gleaned from any number of stops around the world. But the leisurely (occasional aimless) feel of the structure is ultimately very much a strength.
For many people, Grace Jones is still a mythic being. A muse of Warhol and a fierce phantom of New York's early 80s mutant disco scene, Bloodlight and Bami provides ample present tense evidence that Jones still lives up to those perceptions. More important than reinforcing those notions, though, the film gives the one-time Bond girl dimension by balancing scenes of her yelling frustrations into phones and dominating stages with softer, more candid moments rehashing memories with her family, often times while riding through the Jamaican jungle in the back of a van.
The Tragically Hip are a band that I have heard of, but must admit to never actually having listened to until watching Long Time Running, which debuted on Netflix earlier this year. Based on a quick series of searches for album reviews that returned more or less zero results (Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, metacritic, etc) I was lewd to believer that being in the dark on these guys was reasonable... but not so fast! It turns out that, like milk in bags, ketchup chips, and The Littlest Hobo before them, the Tragically Hip are simply one of those cultural hallmarks that just never quite caught on down here in the States the same way that they managed to light the Great White North on fire. But holy shit, up there in Canada they're Coldplay and Springsteen rolled into one. Or at least I was led to believe so by this heartfelt (and ultimately heartstring-tugging) documentary.
Together for over three decades, it was announced in 2016, not long after the group had finished work on the album Man Machine Poem, that lead singer and founding member Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. After numerous rounds of radiation treatments, the group decided to go ahead with what would be their final tour featuring Downie on the mic. Along for the ride were directors Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky, best known for their environmental-centric works Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark, who filmed the whole thing.
Be forewarned, there's not much by way of biographical info about the band in the film itself, which might be a bit frustrating for anyone who, like me, is new to the group. What it lacks in background, though, it makes up for in a profound depth of character. Despite the fact that Downie's days are literally numbered during every inch of film shot for this documentary, everyone is shockingly upbeat, and collectively give the appearance of genuinely being happy for the ride they were able to be a part of and the family of contributors (tour managers, costume designers, guitar techs, and on and on). This is not to say that Downie's mortality isn't front and center, just ask any of the medics who were contractually required to be on hand at every tour stop, but that there's just an overwhelming appreciation for the fact that they're able to give their fans this last hurrah.
The lasting feeling I took from this was that I missed out on something big (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was backstage at their final concert which was airing commercial-free to almost 12 million viewers), and that even if their music wasn't my cup of tea, the group themselves were maybe the nicest guys in all of rock and roll.
Have we moved on from "Brooklyn" as the stereotypical hipster reference point? I'd like to think that LCD Soundsystem's 2011 farewell show at Madison Square Garden took the final gusts of wind out of the sails of anyone unimaginative enough to think past a single borough as being the geographic center of whatever it meant to be a "hipster." Anyway, for all the insults that out of touch old farts might have lobbed at fashionable millennials, there was a not so new-fashioned communal grassroots approach to the way those kids structured their "scenes" and Death By Audio, a little venue that could, was perhaps the most emblematic of that lets-put-on-a-show mentality... right up until it wasn't.
As documented by the film Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death By Audio, we see the rise and fall of what was a legitimately important hub where local and touring bands cut their teeth, no-limits muralists scrawled on the walls, and many a beer can was crushed underfoot. What started out as an illegal loft where a couple of dudes could make artisanal guitar pedals accidentally morphed into a can't-miss stop for NY's underground music lovers, and along the way it katamari'd enough die-hards to become something of a family.
The film hinges on the unexpected irony that their hidey hole intimate performance eden was squashed when Vice Media bought the building, at which point all hell broke loose. The fact that a heartbreakingly earnest DIY arts space, zoning laws and fire code be damned, is unceremoniously steamrolled by the gentrifying force of a once bible-of-cool empire on the rise (which notably profiled the venue's founders apparently), is lost on no one.
To be honest, the way things end for Death By Audio, neither burning out nor fading away, seem in retrospect like a blessing in disguise. The place ran its course and even if it might have been able to keep on for a year or two or three longer, they're granted a way out (martyred through gentrification) where no one's to blame except The Man.
When it comes to hardcore punk, there are few groups more revered than Washington DC's Bad Brains. Loud, fast, and (maybe most notably) technically precise, the quartet crafted one of the greatest debuts in punk history by fusing punishing guitars, "positive mental attitude" self-help concepts snatched from Think and Grow Rich, and spaced out Rastafarian grooves. On paper they're an anomaly, but they managed to make their mark thanks to unhinged live sets that owe mostly to lead singer H.R. ("Human Rights") alternating between meditative passivity and spazzy freakouts, punctuated with gymnastic flips timed perfectly to the endings of songs.
As the word "Finding" in the title Finding Joseph I suggests, at some point H.R. lost the thread both professionally and personally. Directed by James Lathos, the film (a companion piece to an oral history of the same name) traces the arc of his life from nascent punk stardom to the rock bottom he was led to by debilitating mental illness, and upwards towards an optimistic ending that sees the artist in about as good and supportive a place as he could possibly need.
The film, Lathos's first, goes far beyond the normal rock-doc boundaries, and morphs into a study of the self-destructive psychological problems that, long untreated, have plagued the singer for decades. It's a real bummer to watch as the talking heads on the doc, including Questlove and Ian MacKaye, slowly turn from effusively paying respect to highlighting H.R.'s increasingly aberrant and antisocial behavior, to say nothing of the footage of H.R. (both archival and newly filmed) visibly losing touch with reality.
It's hard to find a balance between compassion and clarity when discussing inner demons as hurtful as the ones HR is forced to contend with. Lathos does as good a job as he can, but it's MacKaye who best sums up the impossible task of presenting H.R. in any holistic way when he says towards the end, "As troubled as he may be, he’s strangely free." It's a quote that feels equal parts right and wrong. Like the film itself there's a well of compassion underneath the line, but there's a layer of necessary oversimplification to it as well, hinting at the fact that H.R., one of the greatest frontmen to ever grab a mic, is more devastatingly complex than we'll ever know.
Of the bunch of films I've assembled here, this is the one that's most difficult to recommend on face value, but bear with me as I make a case for what I am considering a film that is as much a cautionary tale of fandom gone wrong as it is an informative look at a living funk legend.
On The Sly: In Search of the Family Stone starts off very similarly to previous Watch The Tunes entry Paul Williams: Still Alive: A wanna-be director attempting to track down a formerly active artist whose body of work fell the hell off. In the case of Paul "Rainbow Connection" Williams, the singer / songwriter / actor ended up becoming fast friends with the director which gave the film a unique look at the life of its subject. With On the Sly we see the flip side of that potential cinematic outcome since, unlike Williams, Stone's private life is one of the most impenetrably guarded in music history. Why did director Michael Rubenstone, a small-time Hollywood actor, decided to put the hunt for Stone front and center in his debut as a director? Biting off more than you can chew is one thing, but Rubenstone's going full John Candy in The Great Outdoors with this one and for that alone it's worth tracking down.
I sincerely assume that the filmmakers here had the most sincere of intentions when they kicked off this endeavor, but there's a certain amount of ignorance (if not outright entitlement if I wanted to really go in on it) that goes along with the assumption that, not only would Sly grant these greenhornes an interview, but that a chat with the curmudgeonly hermit would actually clear up any misconceptions about what he's been up to or why he's stayed away from the spotlight. It's not like Stone doesn't know he's got a platform whenever he'd want it, but here come these white guys with their good-if-misplaced-intentions to knock on his door over and over.
The will-they-or-won't-they meet up tension of the film (which I won't spoil here) pays off in the end, and the archival clips and interview footage buoy up an otherwise problematic set-up. I for one would love to see the unedited footage of Cornel West, Paul Shaffer, and Dick Cavett airing out old school stories about Stone. That said, I can't help but think Rubenstone regrets the whole endeavor which has cost him an absurd amount of money and time. The film spent much of last year bouncing around in the festival circuit and it'd be a shame if it didn't end up finding a home on Amazon Prime or Netflix eventually, if only so the filmmakers could end up recouping the crazy investment that they made (and maybe even put out a DVD with those extended interviews!). Hopefully the very recent news that a legit Sly Stone doc is in the works will get someone to pick this up.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.