When I was 15, I went to London for the summer on a college prep program. My favorite movie then was The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. My big celebrity crush was a young George Harrison.
Because of this, I imagined London would be a black-and-white vision where fangirls chased old-fashioned town cars down the street. I expected Mick Jagger or Eric Clapton to be rooster-dancing or strumming at every pub. I anticipated hip teenagers wearing striped A-Line mini-dresses, their stylish hair flipped up at the ends. At 15, I thought going to London meant “going back in time.”
I found out I wasn’t the only one pining for the 60s when I signed up for a class called ‘The History of Popular Music.’ The class was taught by Jim, a tall salt-and-pepper haired curmudgeon, who often showed up to class lugging a bottle of Jack Daniels which he kept on his desk. When asked about it, he’d say, “That’s how I grade things. A bottle of Jack Daniels and a stack of papers. The people who get me at the bottom of the bottle all pass.”
Jim had been a drummer for an unknown band in the 60s and regaled us with stories from the London scene. He hadn’t just studied popular and rock n’ roll music, he’d lived it. Periodically, at the end of my diary entries that summer, I’d include an irreverent quote from Jim. One gem I wrote down was: “The Rolling Stones are a business. The business of keeping Keith Richards alive.” To me, his word was gold.
One day, Jim decided to take the class to the movies to see the rock-n-roll documentary, DiG! (2004). The film contrasts the careers of Courtney Taylor, frontman for The Dandy Warhols and his best frenemy Anton Newcombe, frontman for The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Narrated by Taylor, DiG! showcases Newcombe’s dust-ups and missteps. Though he’s a brilliant 60s revivalist musician, Newcombe suffers from grand delusions and erratic, destructive behavior. In one particularly hard-to-watch scene, with two A&R reps who might sign Jonestown in the audience, he instigates a fistfight between his bandmates on stage. Newcombe’s megalomania and transcendent genius is so fascinatingly tragic.
Meanwhile, the Dandys sign with Capitol Records, which ignites a somewhat one-sided rivalry between the two bands. The Dandys get famous; Jonestown self-destructs.
Before this field trip, I’d never seen a real rock n’ roll documentary. DiG! not only perfectly captured the ’90s music scene, but I felt immersed in the worlds of Taylor, Newcombe and their wacky bandmates like Zia McCabe, Joel Gion and Matt Hollywood. It had everything I loved about A Hard Day’s Night without the pesky script. In real rock docs, there are no boundaries.
I started watching as many as I could find. Whenever I was home alone or out sick from school, I’d put one on in the background and pretend I was hanging out with these famous musicians, seeing all the grit and glamour behind the scenes. In a way, rock docs also gave me something else I really wanted: to travel in time.
Here are some of my favorites if you’re looking to get into it:
“Gimme Shelter” (1970)
“Gimme Shelter” is one I watched a lot in college. It’s about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour and the final, disastrous show at the Altamont Speedway. Gimme Shelter is an outlier in the documentary genre because it doesn’t use the typical “talking head” or voiceovers. Instead, the camera is a pure observer. Footage is intercut with the band watching the documentary together. You can see Keith Richards contentedly mouth along to a live performance of ‘Wild Horses,’ and watch Mick Jagger’s face drop as he listens to a Hell’s Angel recount his displeasure with the Stones post-Altamont. It’s painfully intimate and always feels like I’m seeing something I shouldn’t be.
By the final half-hour, I’m always dreading when they show the actual Altamont concert. The increasing violence of the “Woodstock of the West” climaxes in the stabbing death of an 18-year-old who was trying to get on stage during the Stones’ set. Only about two seconds of the stabbing is shown in the film, and it’s intercut with Jagger’s haunted reaction to re-watching the footage. Even though I know the harrowing final shot of Jagger’s face is coming, I can never look away.
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” (2002)
When my mom was a kid, she used to put on one of my grandma’s sequin dresses, fluff up her auburn hair and sing Diana Ross into her hairbrush. (She’ll probably kill me for writing this but I find it so charming!) My sister and I grew up watching her boogie to the Detroit sound of Motown.
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” tells the story of the Funk Brothers, “the essence” of Motown, a band that played on more #1 hits than Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined, but never reached mainstream fame. Shadows is a concert film mixed with delightful, enlightening interviews about popular music’s roots. Before this documentary, I knew all the songs – ‘Heat Wave,’ ‘I’ll Be There,’ ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ – and the singers – Martha and the Vandellas, the Four Tops, the Supremes – but I never knew the band behind it all.
“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2005)
In college, my friend Chaz wore a white shirt with a alien-ish frog cartoon and the words “Hi, How Are You” on it. That’s how I first heard about Daniel Johnston. The drawing is the signature of cult singer-songwriter Johnston, a staple of the Austin music scene. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” follows the life and career of Johnston, a schizophrenic and manic depressive genius who suffers from wild mood swings and insurmountable anxiety. After Chaz explained his shirt, I went and bought this documentary.
Daniel Johnston as a person is captivating; raw, off the rails, and disturbingly himself. The movie uses Johnston’s fiendish drawings, disturbing cassette-recorded diary, and interviews with his family and friends to paint a picture of the most unique person I’ve ever watched a film about. Johnston is frighteningly unwell – at one point he takes control of his father’s small plane and nosedives it – and his singing voice is nasal and unpolished, but he’s a musical powerhouse and this look at the inner workings of his whirling brain is one of the best depictions of the merging of madness and creativity.
“The Last Waltz” (1978)
“The Last Waltz” is a celebration of the end of The Band’s touring career, directed by Martin Scorsese. When I was in college, my friends would put this doc on during parties because of the groove-inducing live performances from people like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. The music was always a great mood-setter.
On top of that, Scorsese interviews members of The Band (with some later controversy over how much more focus there is on Robbie Robertson versus other band members). The stories told in the interviews are amazing, and the controversy is titillating but the real reason I love ‘The Last Waltz’ is the unabashed fun in all the performances. There’s nothing better than singing along loudly to “I Shall Be Released” with your friends (or hell, alone) when The Last Waltz ends.
“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (2005)
“All comedians wish they were musicians,” Dave Chappelle says in an interview in his documentary Block Party. “And all musicians think they’re funny.” This connection between music and comedy is apparent in the pure joy on display as comic legend Chappelle tries to put on a huge concert with Kanye West, Mos Def, The Roots and more in Brooklyn in the summer of 2004. More than just a hip-hop concert doc, Block Party (directed by Michel Gondry) follows Chappelle gathering people from where he lives in Dayton, Ohio (most of them white) and bussing them to the show for free.
Throughout, there’s a delightful merging of the quirks of real life, black culture and hip hop. For instance, Chappelle invites a college marching band to play for West and at one point, they discuss with Wyclef Jean (of the Fugees) the scholarships and universal health care they’d create if they were elected president. The show also takes place on the doorstep of a Brooklyn art space/home called Broken Angel where two hippies give Chappelle an inspiring tour.
“Don’t Look Back” (1967)
This is one of my favorite rock documentaries of all time, even if it did totally ruin the pedestal teenage me had put Bob Dylan on. The film covers Bob Dylan’s 1965 acoustic concert tour in the United Kingdom and features him as young, somewhat arrogant, confrontational and difficult — but somehow still incredibly charismatic and clever. The film always feels very present, and for some reason makes me anxious because there are none of the conventional rock doc motifs – no archival footage or interviews. Everything happens “in real time” and the camera is the fly on the wall. There’s some good – emotional collaborations with Joan Baez in a hotel room, and making a quirky iconic music video with Allen Ginsberg. There’s also some very uncomfortable.
One scene, indicative of Dylan’s rough relationship with the press, is particularly like watching a car accident; Dylan’s infamous interview with a Time Magazine reporter where he dismisses elite journalism for not printing “the truth.”
Dylan was seen as aloof and effortless cool but in ‘Don’t Look Back,’ we meet a carefully crafted Dylan who cares about image and the charts. It’s exactly the type of painful inside look at a genius that a rock documentary should craft.
“Edgeplay: The Runaways” (2004)
Edgeplay, directed and produced by former Runaways bass player Vicki Blue, interviews every band member except Joan Jett, who declined to participate. I saw this documentary when I was in high school; before that, I’d glamorized the idea of being a scandalously young rock star, and these girls were kick ass pioneers, but they were also broken to the core by the industry.
Edgeplay is a depressing look at what happens when a group of malleable teenage girls are manipulated by a sleazy abusive manager. Kim Fowley controlled everything the Runaways did – from their money to their sexuality. He also cruelly played them against each other and made it impossible for the girls to truly be friends when they needed each other most. The last scene, with drummer Sandy West wondering why they all just can’t play together again and leave Fowley behind forever, is crushing. Watching this makes me want to hug my female friends and never let go.