Thursday, July 29, 2021


Regard a recording of a musician at work — movement and sound inextricably tied, plus the magic trick of seeing beautiful melody and rhythm plucked out of thin air, and the artist-magicians who conjure it up despite, or maybe because, of their problems. How cinematic. The best music documentaries give us a sense of being present with the art form as it is expressed — and the very best help us hear what makes it interesting. Although the greats in the genre are fine works of style and function on their own terms, there are plenty more that are hardly better than actually spinning the record or pulling up to a concert. But since the live show has been rightfully paused of late, it’s made it not quite so bad that the past couple years we’ve been drowning in these films. I bet the fans of the artists so chronicled don’t mind. If music be the food of love, play on, and all that. It’s no wonder Questlove’s Summer of Soul, which bounces with high spirits between retrospective and contextualizing interviews and long excerpts from footage of a 1969 summer concert series in Harlem with a star-studded lineup of Black musicians, has struck a satisfied nerve for some audiences. In these long, slow, frustrating days that are what we hope might be the end of our current epidemic, just the sight of a huge crowd of people gathered anxiety free to get transported to a place of pure delight through the charisma and style of the people there to play for them is a delight. That the movie might overreach in some of its claims — the concert was, contrary to the subtitle, televised — doesn’t diminish Questlove’s high-energy treatment of the standard talking head style. When a music doc is really cooking, it makes the best of the charisma of performance and interplay with audience. It makes a musician look good.

The artists, too, must love that treatment, since they’ve so often been guiding these projects as an extension of brand management and reputation burnishment. Take Taylor Swift, whose busy 2020 included two documentaries. The better was the pre-pandemic Miss Americana, Lana Wilson’s relatively open look at the process of Swift developing Lover after the comparatively less well-received Reputation. (An unfair knock, I’d say. There are, as the kids say, some real bops on that record.) Throughout, the backdrop of These Times In Which We Live play out, and force her to confront her fear of going the way of The (Dixie) Chicks if she gets too overly political. We see the pressures to open up — and stand up. And we see how it adds stresses to her professional and personal circles. But we also see an artist at work, noodling through melodies and lyrics with casual professionalism, flowing talent, and steely determination. It’s the kind of carefully crafted drops of personal revelation and behind-the-scenes machinations that makes for an interesting watch. Her Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, coming on the heels of the first of her surprise lockdown-made albums last fall, is more straightforward—a cozy, simple performance of a solid album interspersed with some brief comments about each track, clearly a way to do an intimate concert for her fans in a way that’s impossible at the moment. Taken together, the two films are a fine picture of a few years in the life of an interesting pop figure. Unlike, say, Demi Lovato’s YouTube doc Dancing with the Devil, an awkward blend of harrowing detail and glossy remove which presents candor as a value in and of itself while being edited so slickly and choppily that it’s hard to think about anything but the packaging, Swift has opened up in ways more akin to the usual pop star realism.

Similarly, and even better, is R.J. Cutler’s Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry. It’s a fly-on-the-wall as the teenager emerges from her childhood bedroom with some powerfully catchy hooks and moves toward stardom with a winning reluctance. Within baggy clothes and behind rolling eyes, she’s every bit the reluctant rock star, overflowing with obvious talent and yet skeptical of the hoops through which she’s jumped. The film shows her parents as cautious and supportive, her older brother as protective, and Eilish herself a lively, excited, sarcastic, surly, and altogether real young person. Surely that’s good for the brand. But it also feels real enough. It preserves a sense of authenticity even as she’s pulled into concert tours and music videos and Grammy awards. It has tons of footage of her testing talents at a young age, her giddy bewilderment as her songs catch on, and her hard-working drive that can send her limping backstage with an ice-pack, or leaning on the emotion her young audience pours back at her. See, too, her mix of pop star posturing and starstruck fawning when Justin Bieber’s people reach out for a potential collaboration. Come to think of it, this film is a more earnest version of the Biebs’ Never Say Never, a similar look at a turning point that took a teen from a young person’s social media phenom to a global sensation. Eilish's doc, true to its title, presents a blurry sense of sudden ascension, and the tensions it creates, a push-pull in the life of an abnormally normal star-on-the-rise. Somehow she’s still coming across as relatable and real despite the skyrocketing trajectory of her stardom. As a picture of a new star, it’s an interesting document. No matter where she goes from here, it’ll be an engaging marker of this moment in time.

At the other end of a career is Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Tina, an authorized biography interviewing Tina Turner about the trials and tribulations of her career. We also hear tape of 80’s conversations she had with Kurt Loder when he helped write her autobiography. She’s always present, but the movie does a good job making it more than a long self-narrated career retrospective. (Not that I would’ve minded that, necessarily. Spike Jonze made a good version of that form with the surviving Beastie Boys for last year’s fun Beastie Boys Story.) For Tina, we pause at all the hits and see great footage of her in concert and TV appearances at every stage of her career. The film deftly weaves in an understanding of her challenges and assets, contextualizes her talent in the business of the time, and watches as she rises from professional and relational struggles to become a self re-made woman. It touches upon her experiences with domestic violence without lingering on unseemly details and crafts a fine sparkling uplift out one of the great singers finding her voice as a singer and an independent woman. It’s fast-paced and full of well-chosen archival footage (among the highlights has to be an interview promoting her great villain turn in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome where she discusses the angry man in her past while Mel Gibson sits silently next to her) and knows to let the songs play. They speak more than anything else can. When she struts up to the microphone and pours every ounce of her grit and perseverance into her singing, you don’t want to be listening to anyone else. She earns the legend status the awestruck movie takes as its underlying thesis. We don’t need another hero, indeed.

Another in the what-a-career style comes from Edgar Wright, that most inventive and original of filmmakers, he of Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and other visually zippy and creatively cut genre fare. He’s a big fan of the oddball underground rock band Sparks and sets out to tell us why they’re great. He does so through The Sparks Brothers in a relatively standard style, with talking heads (of critics and fans and bandmates and contemporaries) and tons of archival footage, with a chronological stop at each and every one of the band’s albums for discussion about the hit singles, underperforming disappointments, sonic experimentation, or oddball genre swerves. They’re a band that turns falsetto loops over sharply ironic lyrics on albums that run the gamut from glam rock to proto-punk to early synth. They’ve had eccentric chameleonic abilities to anticipate shifts in sound, while simply following their creative bliss. This sometimes puts them ahead or behind the times—or way off on their own doing their own thing.. This has left them the status of having incredible longevity despite being, for most people, a name they might’ve heard once or twice, or a novelty song they might distantly remember more than a going concern. As a whirlwind fanboy tour, Wright does a good job introducing the world to why these guys are of note. It’s clear Sparks has passion and creativity and originality and it’s fun to see them emerge from the underground cult status to something like a mainstream spotlight. As a movie, it’s pretty standard stuff. Even Wright’s cute touches are less inventive than his wont, tending toward the trendy animate filigrees and recreations that clutter so many modern docs. (I did like best how he credits each member of Duran Duran in their interview as just one Duran each.) But it did make me cue up a couple Sparks albums on Apple Music afterwards, so there you go.

My favorite music docs, if you follow the trend, tend to be the ones that, through context or focus, attention or expression, teach you how to understand what you’re hearing, not didactically but sensorily, opening up new ways of comprehending what might’ve ear-wormed pleasingly without a second thought to the complexity. And in doing so it brings the artists into a more revealing light. So it is I’ve probably most appreciated Hulu’s McCartney 3,2,1, a short series of six half-hour episodes shot in evocative black and white, the better to focus in on every note in the sound mix. Loosely organized, each part finds Paul McCartney in conversation with record producer Rick Rubin as they play back tapes of Beatles cuts and solo stuff. As they run, he talks about inspirations and collaboration, the decision behind certain choices of instrumentation and intonation, and approaches a seemingly genuine humbleness when he half-embarrassed, half-proud admits that he’s grown into a fan of his own work. The production might lean a little heavily on Rubin’s starstruck wonderment at some of McCartney’s tales and tidbits, but, hey, I’d would be doing the same, too, wouldn’t you? The show lets these classic songs come back to life. I’d never really heard the bass line in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” until all of a sudden Rubin pulls it out of the mix and lets it live alone in all its crunchiness. Or felt how fast the guitar rushes through its lick in “A Hard Day’s Night” until McCartney explains its speed. (If these bits of trivia have been told before, I hadn’t heard them.) I savored every note of this doc, and could’ve watched another three hours easily. Sometimes you just want to hear one of the greats talk about his work. We’ve never before had so much access to our biggest stars—it’s nice to see some of these music docs put that to good use.

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