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Readers’ Poll: Best Rock Documentary

The Who, Bob Dylan, Rush and more

led zeppelin the song remains the same

David Redfern/Redferns

Ever since the Sixties, when rock & roll became not just a sound but a "lifestyle," fans have been eager to see what it's really like to live it out behind the scenes. Over the years countless bands have granted backstage access to film crews, resulting in hundreds of documentaries and concert films that might be considered minor classics. If you're a fan of the Minutemen, Fugazi, A Tribe Called Quest, Wilco, the MC5, Motown's Funk Brothers or even the lovable Canadian metal also-rans Anvil, to name a scant few, there's a beautiful movie for you. Those films appeal to niche audiences; naturally, the top vote-getters in our latest Readers' Poll tend to cover a much wider swath of the electorate. Click through to see the titles your fellow readers chose as the best rock & roll documentaries of all time.   

the kids are all right

New World Pictures

5. ‘The Kids Are Alright’

Never say the Who couldn't appreciate intrepid spirit. When they were approached by mid-20s superfan Jeff Stein about making a documentary, he was upfront about the fact that he had no previous directorial experience. (He did, however, have a book of photographs of the band under his belt.) The lack of pedigree paid off spectacularly: The Kids Are Alright plays fast and passionately, like the band itself. It begins with the then-controversial decision to open with their destructive performance on the The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour – the first and only time the Who would perform on an American variety hour, and an elegant summation of drummer Keith Moon's propensity for mayhem.

There is terrific lost concert footage unearthed by Stein in The Kids Are Alright – including the band's performance at the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus, long delayed because of the Stones' dissatisfaction – but the real poignancy lays in its personal look at Moon. The volatile, charismatic drummer died one week after he saw an initial cut of the documentary. The film debuted one year later, at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

gimme shelter

Maysles Films

4. ‘Gimme Shelter’

"Brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters, everybody be cool . . . come on!" It's difficult to watch Mick Jagger plead with his crowd at the end of Gimme Shelter, the 1970 Rolling Stones tour documentary. For all his charisma, the singer was unable to stem the violence that was erupting around him at the Altamont Festival on December 6, 1969.

Organized by the Stones and intended as a free, fan-appreciation event to wrap their American tour, Altamont now stands as one of the greatest tragedies in rock concert history. Gimme Shelter is famous in its unflinching account why: the menacing nature of the Hells Angels security, the hostile environment for the performers (the Grateful Dead hightailed it out before their set) and the death by stabbing of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter. A lesser documentary could have glossed over Altamont – panned out, evaded the violence – but Gimme Shelter is an accurate, formidable portrayal of the  symbolic end of the idealistic Sixties. It has a looming dread throughout, and it lands hard.

this is spinal tap

Embassy Pictures

3. ‘This Is Spinal Tap’

Ask its many generations of passionate fans, and they'll agree: calling This Is Spinal Tap a mere "mockumentary" is a grave disservice. It is a candle at the altar of rock bombast, a hysterical dissembling of artistic pretension, a landmark of filmmaking that was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, fer chrissakes.

It's also, of course, completely fake. Directed by Rob Reiner, the 1984 film is an intricate satire of hard rock culture that hinges on the brilliant, mostly improvised performances of actors Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest. Using the same breathless reverence of most rockumentaries of the Eighties, it follows the band's inception (when they were called the Originals, then the New Originals) through their rise to stadiums and ill-suited stylistic experimentations, to their interpersonal strife and breakup. And they only sacrificed a handful of drummers along the way.

Rock fans all have their favorite moments from the flick, whether it's the band's disastrous homage to Stonehenge or lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel's immortal line, "These go to 11." For many rock stars of the era, it all felt familiar: Ozzy Osbourne admitted that he'd also gotten lost on his way to the stage, and Metallica singer James Hetfield suffered mysteriously similar burns as one incident in the film. Steven Tyler reportedly refused to get the joke; surely Aerosmith's cover art of Stonehenge on their 1982 album Rock in a Hard Place did not factor in. Not at all.

woodstock

Warner Bros.

2. ‘Woodstock’

In some ways, the documentary of the Woodstock Festival made as big a splash as its subject did. Besides being selected for preservation in the Library of Congress (take that, Spinal Tap!), Woodstock won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature after it was released in 1970, a victory that immediately legitimized concert movies in the film world.

Woodstock succeeds where many other documentaries lag because it captures the beatific spirit of the event so poetically: the amber sunlight, the smiling attendees relaxing on fields. It focused on the environment of the weekend in 1969 just as much as the now-iconic performances – a bold move at the time, and one that showed a deep respect. (The 40th anniversary edition, released in 2009, skewed more toward performances, with two extra hours of previously cut footage.) After all, people talk about Jimi Hendrix laying into "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, but what do they focus on next and twofold? The pacific atmosphere, the overall sense of camaraderie, the encapsulation of the best of the Sixties' spirit – and it can be felt again by watching the documentary.

the last waltz

MGM

1. ‘The Last Waltz’

The farewell concert of the Band was extraordinary from the start: five hours long, with scores of special guests including Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, and a loving audience that had been served turkey dinners before the show (it was Thanksgiving). Director Martin Scorsese was prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime musical event and came with cameras in tow, maintaining a nuanced eye for action from set opener "Up on Cripple Creek" through "Don’t Do It," the band's encore cover of the Marvin Gaye song. It wasn't an accident that his cameras captured seemingly each solo and vocal delivery with perfect timing; he had painstakingly story-boarded each song beforehand.

Despite the affectionate nature of the evening, shooting The Last Waltz was not without its egotistical showdowns. Bob Dylan, in particular, came armed with stipulations about when he could be shot, and the restrictions were many. "When Dylan got onstage, the sound was so loud, I didn't know what to shoot," Scorsese once explained. "[Concert promoter] Bill Graham was next to me shouting, 'Shoot him! Shoot him! He comes from the same streets as you. Don't let him push you around.'"

After Scorsese fleshed out the project with backstage footage and interviews with the bandmembers (especially focusing on guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson), it was ready for release. It was immediately embraced by music fans (although Levon Helm disliked its focus on Robertson) and is still considered a landmark of concert filmmaking.

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