2015: The Year Music Documentaries Brought Back the Dead
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.