The Sight and Sound of Music Docs

Why are they so hot? From the blues to rock to hip-hop, audiences can’t get enough of them

24 mins read

For many, the current ascent of the music documentary points toward a golden age for the genre. Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom and Amy won Oscars. Many concert and music-oriented docs draw wide audiences theatrically, but more importantly on TV outlets, Blu-ray releases and platforms like Netflix, now a major commissioning and development player.

Music docs focus on a wide range of subjects and themes: soulful talents who live and work in obscurity (20 Feet From Stardom, Sugar Man, Miss Sharon Jones!, Rise Up), genius performers who take a fall (Amy, Janis: Little Girl Blue, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck), and bio-celebrations of beloved icons (Marley, Mavis! and Keith Richards: Under the Influence, 20 Feet director Morgan Neville’s loving spoonful for the Stones’ devilturned-saint.) Joe Berlinger even pushed the genre into band psychodrama with his Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

Performance films abound, as do docs about megawatt or indie bands like Wilco. In the era of American Idol and The Voice, films like Sonita and Presenting Princess Shaw relay stories about totally obscure amateurs who overcome seemingly unsurmountable odds through will, passion and raw talent. Some films, like Muscle Shoals or Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise, focus on masterminds who figured in the creations of musical styles.

Bob Marley sang, ‘When the music hits, you feel no pain.’ Apart from the abiding pleasure of music, there are many reasons why the genre is so popular. For one thing, there’s so much shakin’ goin’ on between the music, the visuals and the big emotions of characters, who tend to live out dramatic, sometimes dangerous, even tragic lives. A music doc like Amy takes you on a rollercoaster ride that shoots up into joyful celebration and then plummets into anger and despair. Even a cozy, feel-good movie like Dave Chappelle’s Block Party builds to transcendent moments like Lauryn Hill’s performance of ‘Killing Me Softly with Your Love.’

The spiritual, transformative power of music radiates from the best of these documentaries. In 20 Feet From Stardom, when Sting praises the great Lisa Fischer, best known for backing the Stones, he argues that vocalists who don’t go through spiritual experiences produce uninspired work. In their docs, filmmakers like Morgan Neville, Liz Garbus, Barbara Kopple and Daniel Cross have the directorial chops to capture moments of transcendent grace.

Whatever their specific subject matter, music docs usually hit other notes, discussing and revealing inconvenient truths about the personal, social and political turmoil experienced by the artists themselves and others in their world. In What Happened Miss Simone?, Nina Simone asks, “How can you be an artist and not reflect your times?” Music docs zero in on experiences of racism, alienation, and emotional damage. They also promote unity between diverse people by bonding viewers to love of musical grooves and the artists who create them, whether it’s Chet Baker, Neil Young, Mavis Staples or Bob Dylan.


Non-narrative music films go all the way back to the shorts that played movie houses highlighting artists like Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington. Starting in the late 1950s and continuing through to the early 1970s, the music documentary found its groove and began to sizzle. The genre as we know it today has its origins in a lineup of concert films from Jazz on a Summer’s Day (The Newport Jazz Festival) and Festival (the same town’s Folk Festival) through Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. More up close and intimate, D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film about Bob Dylan’s tour of England, Don’t Look Back, came five years after Lonely Boy, Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s equally groundbreaking NFB short about Paul Anka on the road.

For Mark Johnson, co-founder of Playing for Change (PFC), the wildly popular web series that presents songs like “Stand By Me” and “Gimme Shelter” in mashups that intercut musicians from around the world recorded with Johnson’s specialized mobile recording studio, music docs “are a great way to learn.”

“Music is my life, and I love to watch documentaries and find out about where different music comes from and finding out more about the musicians I have grown to love. The best thing about music documentaries is that there are so many different kinds of music. It’s everywhere.” Johnson takes his system “from the streets to the middle of the desert and the Himalaya Mountains.” He’s excited about PFC’s latest production, “a version of All Along the Watchtower with Sioux Indians and The Neville Brothers.”

A Grammy-winning producer/engineer and filmmaker, Johnson told POV that Playing for Change originated with two documentaries: 2004’s A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians on the Sundance Channel and 2008’s Peace Through Music, “which contained a bunch of our songs from around the world. People started taking those videos and putting them online.” Johnson says that new and old PFC videos have registered over 300 million views in 195 countries. But of course, their quick hits eliminate the biographical storylines and musical information that are in the full-length docs.

Now that music docs are playing so well, the New Orleans-based Johnson continues, “We want to go back into telling stories, and documentaries are the best for that. There are incredible stories out there. Just this morning, I was having breakfast with Bakithi Kumalo, the bass player for Paul Simon, who played on Graceland. He was telling me about coming from the ghetto in Soweto, and he’s been touring the world for thirty years, playing stadiums. That’s a story.”

Johnson says that PFC has not faced major music rights obstacles, partly because “This project is about humanity, so we are able to go in from that avenue. We also have a charity, the Playing for Change Foundation. We build music and art schools around the world using revenue generated by videos.”

Like many lovers of music docs, Johnson cites Searching for Sugar Man as a favourite. He also admires The Other One, about Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead, and Keith Richards: Under the Influence. Richards is a PFC supporter and appears in some of its clips.

Johnson shares his affection for Muscle Shoals, the doc about the legendary recording studio in rural Alabama with Daniel Cross, whose new film I Am the Blues screened at Hot Docs 2016 and launched a Canadian theatrical run in June.

Cross believes that music docs are now at the centre of the documentary filmmaking enterprise. “One reason,” he told POV, “is that people of a certain age are not happy with most of the music that’s going on today. They have a habit of looking back, romanticising and realising that a whole world is almost gone, so that pushes them to want to meet some of their heroes.

“What I don’t really like,” the filmmaker continues, “is a propensity for a lot of these big American docs to just interview celebrities talking about whoever it is that the film is about. You never really get to a simple honesty.” Cross finds that sincerity in Last of the Blues Devils, which inspired his new movie.

After the three years it took the writer-producer-director to make his doc about elderly roots blues musicians in Mississippi and Louisiana, Cross is eager to shoot more music films. “I would love to do a doc with George Thorogood, just because I’ve been rocking with him since I was a kid. And I’d like to do Rickie Lee Jones, just because when I listen to her, I fall in love.”

Apart from celebrating music and people that Cross loves, I Am the Blues is inextricably linked to his earliest impulses to become a filmmaker. Back in 1980, a chance encounter led to him meeting a slew of blues legends, including Sonny Terry and John Hammond. Cross snapped many pictures that weekend, “which made me more interested in documentation, and the NFB. When I started filmmaking, I realised one thing: I appreciated and respected first-person lived experience. You don’t need to interview other people; you don’t need others speaking on their behalf.”

In the film, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, L.C. Ulmer, Bobby Rush, Lazy Lester, Barbara Lynn, Henry Gray, “Lil” Buck Sinegal, Carol Fran and other blues people speak for themselves, offering an oral history of their world. Cross evokes the locale from which the music sprang: the riverbanks, railroad tracks, bars and churches. One key location, Holmes’s 43-year-old juke joint, the Blue Front Café, takes on iconic status in the movie and its website’s interactive experience.


During the first shoot, Cross drove through the film’s world with Dr. Ike, a blues devotee and anaesthesiologist who knows many of the people the film documents. “We called people twenty minutes away,” Cross smiles, “and showed up at their houses.”

I Am the Blues has a spontaneous feel of dropping in on people, then watching them as they play their soulful tunes. The musicians tell stories about the Chitlin’ Circuit performing venues, the star musicians they performed with, and turning points in their lives. Little Freddie King remembers making his first guitar out of a cigar box he found in an abandoned Cadillac. Carol Fran is still haunted by her first song, Emmitt Lee, which she wrote in the aftermath of being with a perfect lover who instantly evaporated from her life.

Inevitably, Cross’s film reminds us that these blues people are black people with a tortured past. Bobby Rush recalls the humiliation of having to play behind a curtain in Chicago. The white audience didn’t want to see the musicians’ faces. “What are we?” a pastor shouts out in one scene, which recalls the tragic moment in What Happened, Miss Simone? when the great singer-pianist, after becoming a fierce civil rights activist, laments that African- Americans are a “lost race.”

Despite the sorrow, “Bobby Rush says that basically the blues is talking about your lot in life and what you’re experiencing in the here and now, and the transcendental element music has that helps you get past it towards ecstasy.” As for modern music, Cross continues, “Bobby says hip-hop is a form of the blues because rappers are talking about their problems.”

I Am the Blues dovetails into Hip-Hop Evolution, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ Blue Front Café matching up with 1520 Sedgwick Ave., the South Bronx address widely considered the birthplace of a new form of African-American music.

In 1973, Clive Campbell, aka Kool Herc, ran a party at 1520, working an improvised sound system. He played the “breakout” sections of songs, the drums and bass, switching turntables on the same track, whether it was disco or funk. Herc is a key figure in Hip-Hop Evolution, an account of the origins of the street-nurtured music directed by Darby Wheeler, with co-direction assistance by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen. The story of hip-hop’s early days gets told from the point of view of Canadian rapper and CBC radio host Shad, who is visibly delighted to explore the origins of music central to his life. A brisk, informative movie enhanced by tasty archival work, Hip-Hop Evolution tracks Shad through the Bronx and Harlem as he links up with creators and innovators like Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, one of the doc’s most fascinating characters.

Obsessed with wiring and the sounds emanating from 78s, Flash experimented with electronics he found in junk piles. He evolved into a still-regal visionary, who made the turntable into a musical instrument like the sax and the electric guitar, which were re-purposed by blues, jazz, R&B, soul and rock ‘n roll musicians. Hip-hop, the film suggests, slots into the never-ending evolution of black music that reflects the traumas of the ‘hoods (exemplified by the song, ‘A Child Is Born’), reconnects them to Africa, and lifts them out of suffering. Hip-Hop Evolution follows the history from the advent of rapping over the beats (talking smooth is a black thing going back to gospel, says one of the characters) to a chapter called “Uptown Goes Downtown.” That’s when white punk rockers and new wavers in clubs like Negrill, Mud Club, and Roxy fell hard for the music and launched its mainstreaming. Blondie rapped on “Rapture” and suddenly music that originated in the South Bronx was headed for the suburbs.
Another recent doc, Steve Read and Rob Alexander’s Gary Numan: Android in La La Land, unfolds in a musical world completely different from that of Hip-Hop Evolution. The film is a psychological portrait of Numan from his discovery of the synth sound that made him into an early 1980s star through his meltdown, recovery, and comeback.


Recalling Amy (although Numan never reached her level of self-destruction) and The Osbournes (but with a more stable marital relationship in view), the film depicts a genuinely interesting, surprising character. Back in Numan’s heyday, he created a completely artificial persona, a “robotic thing.” In an era when many critics favoured classic roots rock, he was seen as a deviation from what was supposed to be honest music. = Attacks on Numan were personal. Coming across in the film as a nakedly vulnerable, disarmingly candid and unpretentious person, Numan says, “It was like you did this terrible thing. What the fuck is that?”

Eventually, Numan took a ten-year hiatus from performing. The doc picks him up as he is attempting to resurface and create a new album, but it’s really more about coming to terms with psychic turmoil: doubt, fear, money problems, confused identity and exaggerated panic about death.

To convey its backstory, Android in La La Land unloads copious home movie clips and footage of Numan’s charismatic, musically exciting performances. Numan’s voiceover personalizes the story, which contrasts a man who loved machines and cultivated cool with the loving husband and father at home in the English countryside.

Also documenting a phenomenon from another era, Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s Strike a Pose offers an update on a group of male dancers who once were anywhere from twenty feet to one inch from stardom—in fact, from one of the biggest stars ever, Madonna.

Luis Camacho, José Gutierez Carlton Wilborn, Belgian Salim Gauwloos, Kevin Stea, hip-hopper Oliver Crumes III—the only straight member of the group—and Gabriel Trupin, who died young of AIDS, performed with Madonna during her provocative 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. As Alek Keshishian’s hit doc Truth or Dare reveals, Madonna and the dancers were like family, rolling around in bed together and engaging in heart-to-hearts.

Strike a Pose has been called a “story of orphaned children.” The doc juxtaposes glittering moments of the dancers and Madonna voguing with present-day reality. We get the sense of a lost utopia, of being separated forever from Madonna’s world, its magic and power.

The glory days degenerated into AIDS, drugs, debauchery, lawsuits, poverty and homelessness. But, except for Trupin, all the dancers survived—with their talent intact. Strike a Pose offers an upbeat finale montage that shows them dancing their vogue moves in various locations. Strike a Pose also reminds the viewer that Madonna’s commitment to creative freedom and sexual openness was genuine. It’s too bad she doesn’t appear in the film’s climactic reunion sequence.

Contemporary Color, directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross is a performance doc and a one-of-a-kind experience. A project dreamt up by David Byrne, the movie assembles ten of North America’s top colour guard teams, who perform their spectacular routines with handpicked indie musicians who all wrote original music for the occasion. A staple during half-time at football games, colour guard teams choreograph intricate, synchronised dance moves that include spinning flags and toy rifles in the air and catching them in unison, creating a visual whirl that can pack emotional punch.


Who thought there could be so much beauty in the sight of high school kids doing half-time dances? Obviously David Byrne, who loves tight synchronization merged with uninhibited emotion. That’s what Talking Heads and Stop Making Sense were all about. He’s also interested in breaking down barriers between sports and art, small town/suburbia and the downtown hip. The musicians who perform with the teams include St. Vincent, Devonté Hynes, Nelly Furtado, Ad-Rock, Zola Jesus, How to Dress Well and Byrne himself. One of the most striking moments puts contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly together with radio show This American Life’s Ira Glass. A team called Alter Ego from Ansonia, Connecticut performs to Muhly’s music while Glass’s taped interviews with team members comment on the moves they are making.

The doc, shot with multiple cameras and aiming at maximum visual saturation, cross-cuts between the performances and backstage hubbub. The kids stretch, rehearse, pray, fix their hair. Byrne, almost comically enthusiastic, rushes through halls. In a touching moment, the film zeroes in on an African-American girl whose father died in performance, and then cuts to her practicing her moves on a dark suburban street.

Contemporary Color plays as a celebration of performance, commitment and the pure creative energy that makes Keith Richards so happy in Under the Influence. You could argue that’s what all music docs are about. It’s the link between eighty-year-old blues musicians in Mississippi, hip-hop innovators in the Bronx, a British synth-punk singer, an inventive crew of voguing dancers, soulstirring backup singers and such blistering but tragic figures as Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse, and Janis Joplin.

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