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.
Piggybacking on the Band Called Death movie and probably some of the others, comes The Black Godfather, which came out in 2019 and is a documentary about Clarence Avant. Anytime I was reading reports about people getting major label deals, his name would come up. Yeah, even one of the deals that we ended up signing was associated with one the guy who was somehow connected with Clarence Avant! He's just one of these guys. He's a mover and shaker behind the scenes. As a matter of fact, Sugarman (number 4 in our list) was tied to his label. He's also tied to the careers of Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and just so many different people whose music you're hearing today. I think L.A. Reid and Babyface owed their success to him. He's a rainmaker. Quincy Jones is connected to him too. –By the way, there’s another documentary about Quincy Jones on Netflix……
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Here’s another good one that we watched before Neil Peart died. We just watched it again after he died; Rush’s Time Stand Still (2019). It goes into Peart’s psychology and some of the health issues he had and some of his interests. It was filmed when Rush was during their last tour and Peart was having trouble with his hands. We’ve never seen Rush live, but when they were live, they reproduced their songs EXACTLY the way they were on the record. So, if there was a riff that you heard on a record, you were gonna hear it! Rush fans are intent on hearing this kind of duplication of the record. Therefore, on that last tour, they talked about how it was so hard for him to do that every night, but he would get out there and give it all he had and then for the next day or two, he’d be sore. But he didn't want to let anybody know AND he didn't drop a note. Peart would probably be on the Mount Rushmore of drummers, and we’re not drummers, but this really a good documentary that tells a good story.
Our next favorite is one we've seen over and over and it is Imogene Heap’s Everything In-Between (2013), which is the story of her making the Ellipse album. It shows her building the studio in her house, among other things. It's about her creative process; for instance, how she recorded her vocal tracks in the bathroom of the house, how she had to push the date of completion back quite a ways, how she brought in guest artists. It told the story from start to finish, where this journey began as a blog and then turned into a short film. We always like to see what people's process is so that one was just enjoyable. It showed the daily process of making this album. It also showed how she took care of her body, because she realized halfway through that she was in no shape to tour, so she begin a new fitness regimen in the midst of her writing. Again, we love that it covered the artist as a person and the process by which they create.
Numbers 14 & 15
We've put two in one, because we like Spike Lee's Michael Jackson documentaries, Bad 25 (2012) and Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (2016). The first one shows how there was such skepticism about Michael's ability to have a successful solo at that time. Then it shows the issues with Quincy Jones. It’s really a nice chronicle the back end of that as Bad is the album that followed Thriller, which was his mega success. But also how Michael Jackson wanted to sell a hundred million and that he was determined to do it. He epitomized how commerciality and work ethic made him who he was. In fact, the documentary show that this is what Quincy Jones was impressed with, but it also shows how they came together and then the second documentary shows—Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (2016)—shows how their mindsets kind of split. It’s all very fascinating.
Next on the list, we learn about one of the greats of traditional meets fusion, which is the Miles Davis documentary, Birth of the Cool (2019). This film backfills how complicated he was, which we learn is bittersweet. It at once makes you know you hate him for how he treated his wife, but then you're cheering for him, because was visionary and creative and a good teacher of up and coming musicians. He always had style and was interested in portraying somebody who looked interesting and creative and that's why he picked up young musicians, like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and a very young Marcus Miller. His influence on music goes even beyond jazz.
Chasing Train: The John Coltrane documentary (Netflix, 2017) is another good one. He’s a legend, of course, and this film shows how John Coltrane played with Miles Davis and was such a big influence in the jazz world and on the jazz ethos.
Finally on the list, but not finally in our heart—because there are SOOOO many wonderful music-related documentaries that we could have put on here— but the next is I Call Him Morgan: The Lee Morgan Story (2016). It is one of those soap opera-type dramas and a moment from the jazz continuum. This documentary tells a story about the woman who ended killing trumpeter Lee Morgan, but how you know she had kind of saved him from himself early on. It tells how she nurtured him and then eventually it just it went badly. It reminds of how complicated the idea of being both talented and visionary can sometimes be antithetical to living a healthy prosperous life..
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Yeah, we’re still on quarantine in many places across the world and have more time on our hands than we can fill meaningfully. We’ve heard some people say they are tired of just noodling off and watching braindead tv and that others are tired of learning things (like home repair, gardening, or cooking). At times like this, we find that backfilling our historical knowledge of the music and the art is what we like to do. Music-based documentaries helps us do that.
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What about you?
What music-based (or art-based) documentary
should we add to our list?
Or what have you been watching that has been
filling your soul up with good vibes?
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