Nothing fits the music documentary format quite so compellingly as a life cut tragically short. In addition to the ready-made dramatic arc, a subject who leaves this mortal coil before their time usually also leaves a certain amount of mystery in their wake, providing ample grist for filmmakers (and the folks they interview) to chew on.
Even when the hows and whys of an artist’s tragic exit are a matter of uncontroversial record, questions of “What might have been?” inevitably linger over their prematurely truncated discography — in itself a far easier thing for a film-maker to deal with (and make sense of) in the context of a 90- to 120-minute span than an artist with several decades worth of recordings to their credit.
So perhaps that’s why, in a year filled with excellent music documentaries, a significant percentage of them were devoted to subjects from the “gone too soon” annals of music history. Hell, there were two 2015 docs on Kurt Cobain alone — Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and Benjamin Statler’s Soaked in Bleach. The former, the first doc on Cobain to be made with the full cooperation of his family, utilizes home movies, personal journal entries and unreleased audio recordings to create an intimate portrait of the late Nirvana frontman. The latter uses the 1994 experiences of private detective Tom Grant — and some pretty dodgy dramatic re-enactments — to explore the question of whether or not Kurt actually killed himself, predictably drawing the wrath of Courtney Love, who does not come off particularly well in the doc.
Amy Winehouse — who, like Cobain, died at the age of 27 — receives a fairly straightforward biographical treatment in Asif Kapadia’s Amy, but the horror and senselessness of her rapid decline hits home perhaps even more powerfully because of it. Given the lengthy shadow cast by Janis Joplin, another member of “the 27 club,” it’s surprising that she’s been the subject of so few documentaries; Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue, featuring narration from ardent fan Cat Power, is actually the first full-length Joplin doc in over 40 years.
Heaven Adores You, Nickolas Rossi’s impressionistic love letter to Elliott Smith, explores the lasting power of the enigmatic singer-songwriter’s music while largely side-stepping the murky circumstances of his apparent suicide in 2004. Jaco: The Film, directed by Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak — and co-produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo — shines a long-overdue spotlight on the life and death of the genius jazz bassist and composer Jaco Pastorius, who died following a bar brawl in 1987.
The life and work of late singer-songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone receives some long-overdue cinematic study in Liz Garbus’ acclaimed What Happened, Miss Simone?, while James D. Cooper’s Lambert & Stamp and Mark Moorman’s The Record Man shed some equally welcome light on some behind-the scenes heavyweights who have “left the building” — Who managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, and Miami music mogul Henry Stone.
Scenes (and things) that are gone were also popular doc fodder in 2015, with Scott Crawford’s Salad Days: A Decade of Punk In Washington, DC (1980-90) and Colin “Son of Tom” Hanks’ All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records leading the nostalgic parade. The NYC Latin music scene of the 1960s is the setting for Matthew Ramirez Warren’s We Like It Like That: The Story of Latin Boogaloo, while the South Bronx gang wars of the late 60s and early 70s provide the backdrop to Shan Nicholson’s Rubble Kings — featuring the story of the Ghetto Brothers, an activist gang who also formed their own Latin rock ensemble — and the 70s New York punk scene plays a large role in Brendan Toller’s Danny Says, a charming portrait of legendary rock gadfly Danny Fields.
Sacha Jenkins’ Fresh Dressed traces the evolution of hip-hop fashion from the streets of 1980s NYC to the Paris runways of 21st century, and Reagan-era New York also plays a substantial part in Alex Dunn’s 808, which celebrates the Roland TR-808 drum machine and its influence upon modern popular music. The decade also figure prominently in Soul Boys of the Western World, George Hencken’s documentary on British new romantics Spandau Ballet, while the beginning of that fateful decade is the setting for The Ties That Bind, Thom Zimmy’s documentary (shown on HBO, but also included in the box set of the same name) about the lengthy and arduous studio sessions that produced Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 classic The River.
Of course, as the Springsteen and Fields documentaries remind us, there is much to be said for filming our icons while they still walk among us. 2015 also blessed us with docs about some of music’s most unusual characters of the last 40 years, like Volker Schaner’s Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise, Wes Orshoski’s The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, Hervé Martin-Delpierre’s Daft Punk Unchained, and Ryan Wise’s I Am Thor, about the attempted comeback of bodybuilder/metal singer John Mikl Thor.
On the more mainstream tip, gospel/soul legend Mavis Staples finally got her cinematic due in Jessica Edwards’ Mavis! (look for it on HBO in 2016) while Mike Fleiss’ The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir brought the Grateful Dead’s number-two guy out from behind the lingering shadow of Jerry Garcia. And if Keith Richards turns out to be merely mortal, countless Internet memes to the contrary, Morgan Neville’s Keith Richards: Under The Influence will serve as an excellent primer for future generations on the music that made the Rolling Stones riff-master tick.