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We’re Living in a Golden Age of Music Documentaries: Five Breakdowns

How a quartet of different movies released in the last month — and one hitting theaters this Friday — are contributing to the Era of Peak Music Doc

From 'Bad Reputation' to 'Quincy' — breaking down the five different music-documentary types of our current Golden Age of Music Docs.

Magnolia Pictures; Abramorama; Drew Gurian/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Over the last year or so, you could go to the movies and/or turn on your TV, and see feature-length docs on Grace Jones, the Tragically Hip, Lady Gaga, Elvis (both an original-recipe cradle-to-grave portrait and an extra-crispy dive into how his decline reflects our current national mindset), Eric Clapton, the Avett Brothers, Deer Tick, Ed Sheeran, music mogul Clive Davis, a semi-obscure free-jazz drummer, a multi-chapter series on hip-hop, two Peal Jam shows at Wrigley Field, not one but two Whitney Houston postmortems and a two-part look at the very publication you are reading right now. This is assuming that you had already caught up with the recent-to-recent–ish nonfiction looks at Sharon Jones, Jawbreaker, the Grateful Dead, Amy Winehouse, Bad Brains singer H.R., John Coltrane, Nick Cave, Nina Simone, trumpeter Lee Morgan, the history of Bad Boy Records and stem-to-stern looks at both D.C. and East Bay punk.

We are living in some sort of Golden Age of Music Documentaries right now … or at the very least, a sort of Glut Age, where everyone from the usual canonized subjects to cult figures now get the complete this-is-your-life treatment. You can look to the obvious reasons for this boom period — digital cameras, cable channels and streaming services, rabid fanbases providing a built-in audience. Yet we music lovers seem to have hit a point where the proliferation of full-length takes on artists, bands, producers, labels and scenes has lapped our ability to get eyeballs on most of them.

All of which seemed to be building to a three-week period in September of 2018, when you had four major entries in the genre hitting screens. That quartet is about to be followed by a look back at the cultural phenomenon that was the superdisco Studio 54, opening in New York on October 5th before coming soon, hopefully, to a theater near you. Plus more are on the way, because of course they are.

For the moment, let’s zero in on those last five, since they coincidentally run the gamut of Golden Age music-doc formats — not a definitive list of the different ways you can tackle a rock/R&B/hip-hop/pop subject by any means (you could spend weeks categorizing subgenres and sub-subgenres) but arguably the most common you’ll find today. (The only thing missing from this period is the “Concert Film,” though several of these types of docs have been doing one-or-two-night stands in select cities over the past year. We’re assuming one, or several, or several dozens of those are heading to theaters or cable or what-have-you any minute now.)

The Profile
Bad Reputation
No one snarls their way through a song like Joan Jett — no one. Bad Reputation, Kevin Kerslake’s doc takes it for granted that we know that sandpaper-grit voice whether you’re a first class Jett-setter or simply remember her as the raven-haired tough chick singing “I Love Rock and Roll” on MTV way back when. You probably don’t know her whole story, however, so Kerslake gives Our Lady of the Blackhearts the full 360-degree profile: getting her first guitar as a kid; being told girls can’t play rock & roll; joining up with drummer Sandy West and forming the classic Seventies post-glam band the Runaways; being told young women can’t play rock & roll; producing the Germs debut LP; being told that women can’t produce rock & roll albums; forming the Blackhearts, having some Top 40 hits, touring incessantly; being told women over the age of 30 can’t play rock & roll; inspiring a whole new generation of females, from the 1990s to the present day, to play the fuck outta rock & roll songs.

You also get to see the Mutt-and-Jeff double act that is Joan and producer Kenny Laguna, a dozen or so talking heads attesting to her greatness and oodles of what the singer/guitarist calls her patented “pussy to the wood” bangers. Kerslake and Co. never reduce Jett’s story to simply the History of Women in Rawk!, since that would be reductive and pay short shrift to someone who’s devoted herself to the perfect power-chord combo. But you get that lesson regardless, seeing how this Pennsylvania-born, Hollywood-bred lady kept proving haters wrong every time she plugged into her amp. The only thing missing is a sense of her personal life other than the Platonic Bickersons duo of her and Laguna; “rock and roll is not a person and I like to think I know the difference” is probably a more telling quite than she realizes, but she ain’t going there overall. Still, this a straight-down-the-middle example of the textbook profile, looking at the arc of an artist, underlining why she’s important and emphasizing that Jett is not done yet. Fans and those who need a primer on Joan of Rock should check it out.

The Micro-to-Macro Profile
The Public Image Is Rotten
The spirit of ’77 liberty spikes and bondage pants, the grainy footage of four punks onstage unleashing filth and fury, the Bill Grundy show, the Queen’s jubilee, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” — anyone who’s seen one of a billion history-of-rock docuseries know the story of the Sex Pistols and how they changed Western Civilization. But didn’t John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon form another band after that? Yes, just one of the single most influential, creatively fertile postpunk outfits ever. Actor-turned-filmmaker Tabbert Fiiller dispenses with the Pistols narrative in the first five minutes and sprints through Lydon’s formative years more or less in the first 10 minutes. After that, Rotten delivers a blow-by-blow account of the bad decisions, bad gigs, burnt bridges and burnt-out musicians left in Public Image Limited’s wake, in addition to the highs of making incredible, often uncategorizable music. (Seriously, have you listened to Second Edition lately?!) This group has been around for decades longer than his first band. It’s surprising that it’s taken this long to tell PiL’s story.

But this also doubles as a mini-portrait of Lydon himself, using the group’s history to look at how the man at the center of this collective recoiled from the rock & roll notion of “success,” how he tapped into entirely new musical modes of expression, how his “death disco” sound on the early albums made you realize that punk was too limited (pun unintended) a term for what he was capable of and how, like many great artists, he could soak up the frequencies around him but stayed true to his voice. It also suggests the man holds grudges and does not necessarily play well with others. And in one wonderful sequence, he reveals a soft side when his wife, Nora Forster, is mentioned — he refuses to talk about her because their relationship means too much to boil down to a documentary soundbite, which tells you all you need to know. Through the narrow lens of the PiL years (which are still going, to be fair, as the band is touring again), we get Lydon’s story as well.

The Mix Tape
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.
Once upon a time, Steven Loveridge met a charismatic fellow student at art school. She was a Sri Lankan immigrant living in London, and her name was Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam; like Loveridge, she wanted to be a filmmaker. He could tell she was a one-of-a-kind dynamo, long before any talk of world tours and boom-boom-boom-take-your-mon-eyyy choruses. Maya had been filming her own life for a while, sometimes just snippets of her as a youngster dancing with her friends (she loved Madonna and later became obsessed with hip-hop) and sometimes when she went back to her parents’ country. Later, when she became famous, Loveridge asked if he could have access to her old footage, as well as some behind-the-scenes stuff filmed during that crazy New York Times Magazine profile and a very contentious Super Bowl appearance, for a live-music project. She said yes. He took the film. Then the director went, well, missing in action (very sorry) for almost five years.

The result, after some legal wrangling and potentially less-than-legal shenanigans, is Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., one of the best examples next to Cobain: Montage of Heck of the “mix tape” style of music docmaking. It has some overlap with the “home movie” music doc (more on that in a second). But essentially, this template forgoes elements like chronology, A-to-B storytelling, testimonial interviews and what you associate with standard verité portraiture, and just mixes and matches, flips and dips into flotsam and jetsam surrounding the subject. So you get tidbits of her youth and college days, her early tagging along with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and some juicy post-fame stuff. (There will be truffle fries shit-talking.) How she wrote her first album or “Paper Planes,’ her ascent to superstardom, lots of concert footage? You won’t necessarily find it here.

Which, in a way, is the smartest way to look at M.I.A.’s work and her personal journey, for lack of a less sappy term. A polyglot of the first order, Maya has drawn from so many different musical/multicultural sources that it’s near-impossible to trace them all; her immigrant experience has, she’s mentioned, made her feel like an outsider in England and a stranger in Sri Lanka. (The fact that her dad was a leader of the Tamil Tigers meant she had to deal with some animosity as well.) And as someone who stepped into the 21st century’s media spotlight, she’s used to having her statements reduced to soundbites. So this collage of sound and sensations and imagery actually fits the music and the woman making it better than, say, a Dateline-with-benefits style profile. By the way, this opened in major markets the same weekend as Bad Reputation; it was possible to go from a look at one groundbreaking XX-chromosome badass to a cinematic scrapbook of her modern-day heir with just a walk between theaters. How fucking cool is that?

The Home Movie
Quincy
This look at a bona fide musical genius — like his jazz-playing peer Miles Davis, Quincy Jones can legitimately claim to have changed music five or six times — comes close to being your usual checklist profile, delving into rough early years in Chicago’s south side, personal tragedy, bop club tenures, Sinatra, film scores, family life, Thriller, We Are the World and oh-so-much more. Really, if anyone deserves the great-man doc treatment (or better yet, a long, multi-episode look at one hell of a life in the arts), it’s the man they call “Q.”

But there’s a side movie battling it out for screen time here, which knocks this partially into what we call the “home movie” doc, when personal aspects of the subject’s life, often in the form of a currently-in-progress triumph or trial, start to take hold of the story. (You do not have to feature actual home movies a la Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., by the way.) It might have been a good idea to get someone beside Rashida Jones, his daughter, to co-direct movie and, frankly, maintain a bit more distance. The one downside would be that miss out on a lot of remarkably personal stuff, like seeing Jones in a limo after a night of good-vino overload and later, in his hospital bed after suffering a stroke. We also watch as he goes to rehab, tries to ramp back up to his usual punishing workaholic schedule, falls into a diabetic coma at one point and helps plan the inaugural event of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. You do not get these kind of intimate, fly-on-the-wall moments without the sort of access and trust that family gets.

Do these two strands, one set in the then-present and the other tracing his extraordinary past accomplishments, complement each other? Not really. Would they have made better companion pieces instead of being sewn together in a single doc? Probably. But when you are in those portrait-of-an-artist-as-an-old-man-taking-stock moments, the result is indeed voyeuristically fascinating. And clearly, if part of Quincy is designed to suggest that neither age nor illness can slow him down, it does give you a sense that the elder Jones is anything but down for the count.

The Scene Portrait
Studio 54
If you wanted to do a study of disco, especially the culture behind the tunes, you could do a lot worse than looking at the rise and fall of Studio 54, the nightclub that many consider the epicenter of the movement’s moment in the spotlight. Yes, there was a thriving disco-music scene before Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager opened up their hedonistic paradise in midtown Manhattan, and anything with a thumping beat that gets people on the dance floor is still big business around the world. But as a time-capsule look at the allure of the sound, its ability to loosen inhibitions and its an evolution from being associated with African-American and gay clubs to a hoity-toity celebrity hangout, Matt Tyrnauer’s doc hits its marks. You do wish the movie dug a little deeper into the music itself, but, well — see title.

Unlike other recent “scene” movies, you do not the God’s Eye view of the movers and shakers who made it happen on a larger scale. But you do get Schrager opening up extensively for the first time about the ins and outs of running the club, his partner’s tendency to get … personally involved in the revelry, the tax-evasion charge that brought them down and the legacy this place left behind. That, and Nile Rogers talking about getting kicked out and writing “Freak Out” in response. The soundtrack, it goes without saying, is a pure polyester dream.

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