Top Music-Related Documentaries
This post very loosely accompanies Gab & Jam Episode 127
We thought this is a good time during our quarantine/lockdown/cocooning/summer staycation/holiday for you to enrich yourselves. I know people have been binging on guilty pleasure television and whatever else. We know other people are taking this time to learn how to do things, but we've done that before ( http://bit.ly/diycoronavirusplay ). However, what we're talking about is enriching yourself by backfilling that history of music knowledge. Therefore, our topic today is top music related documentaries.
As you might have guessed, there are tons of these, but you don't have to take notes. All the links are assembled here. These are in no particular order and there are tons of them so we're not we're not going to spend too long talking about them, but there are just a few that we want to hip you to in a variety of musical genres; some of what are biographies and some are creative process videos, so here we go:
Numbers 1 & 2
These first two go together and they deal with jazz and country music origins. They're both by Ken Burns; Jazz (2000) and Country Music (2019). Ken Burns is quite extensive in his exploration of a topic. We’ve probably watched the Jazz one AT LEAST four or five times, but it's a ten part series, which each part being about an hour and a half to two hours long. While it is definitely a commitment, it's probably more geared toward traditional-style jazz than anything else, but it’s heavy on Louis Armstrong. In fact, we found out that Louis Armstrong is King of the World! Yes, it definitely spends the majority of the time on the greats like Duke Ellington and Bennie Goodman. Again, it covers more traditional jazz with acoustic instruments, so just be aware of that. However, there are so many overlappings and layerings that you can see how evolved from one incarnation to the next.
We’ve only seen the Country Music (2019) series once, because it's relatively new, but it is chock full of insightful information about the origins and incarnations of country music.
Number three on the list is a fun one, if you're a person who likes history, but you also like comedy, you will like the cartoon Tales From the Tour Bus (2012). It's anecdotal stories from people who have been on tour with various people. It recounts certain instances and incidents, which are really funny and cute. We really like the one that was on Rick James, which was just awesome and covered his tour with Prince. It’s really entertaining and we highly recommend it.
This next inspires us a bunch is Searching for Sugarman (2012). It's about an artist, under the name “Rodriguez,” who is from Detroit and released a record in the 70s. The record was a flop by all major record company standards, but it ended up in being a cult hit in South Africa. The rumor in South Africa was that Rodriguez was dead right and that’s what made this documentary filmmaker do some research and they found him. It turns he was working on rehabbing houses in Detroit, but he had no idea right of reverence that they had for his message and his music. It just reverberated from what they were feeling all the way on the other side of the world. It's just a reminder of the power of being the do-it-yourself rock star; the fact that if you're putting music out there, you just never know where the seeds are going to take root right and where that's going to take root.
Speaking of little-known groups, we love another one of those little known bands that has now reached this cult-like status is featured in a documentary about a band called “Death.” (Death, 2012) In fact, that’s the name of the documentary released in 2012 and it's about a black punk rock group. One of their founding members has passed, but they were able to kind of pull the band together, with the founding member’s son, AFTER this documentary, actually, and did some shows.
We like that planting those seeds and will continue the black rock theme with Afropunk (2012), the movie. The Afropunk movement has grown into quite a big deal, spawning festivals all over the world. This is the story about how it all started as just an idea of a black guy who liked punk rock. After we watched the movie, I found out that the founder has left the organization and somebody has taken it over but it has grown way beyond his initial, small start. Again this is one of those stories about planting the seed, watering it, and letting it grow and mature.
Next on our list of music-related documentaries is A Great Day In Harlem (1994) and it is the documentary about the staging and taking of a black-and-white photograph of 57 jazz musicians in Harlem, New York City. The picture was taken by freelance photographer Art Kane for Esquire magazine on August 12, 1958. It’s an amazing photo. If you Google it, you'll see the remaining people there are only two that are still alive from that big group. We love the picture and then when we saw the documentary, it just backfilled all the information that we did not know, so we love that.
Here’s one that we keep going back to. It’s the Woodstock (1970) documentary which is where we find out about the farm, how people were perceiving this event at that time, and how everything went wrong! Yes, it was this great cultural moment that people keep trying to rekindle, but it really is the event where everything went wrong. People went bankrupt, the field was destroyed for the farmer, and all that kinds of mud, nudity, and stoners and stuff, but it created this great musical moment that you can't buy.
The next music-related documentary on the list is called Mavis! (2016) and it's about Mavis Staples. It just was inspirational to see you know where she came from, learn about her family and how she kind of was the focus of the group. Her voice is amazing! She's still alive and kicking. She’s worked with Prince and had a song out with Ben Harper and she continues to tour and seems to have no plans to slow down!
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Number 10 is Hip Hop Evolution (2016), a Netflix series. It basically chronicles the hip-hop from its origins on through the years. The narrator—Canadian hip hop artist Shad—goes to different places—from down south (to trace the roots of southern rap) to how rapping on the west coast began. It's very comprehensive as far as all the different styles of rap. There's probably about three seasons or so, and it’s really, really good as far as really understanding the whole history of hip-hop.