Life on the beat: 22 music films to stream

The Searcher has led t2 to search for more such gems — docu films on our favourite musicians. Tune in to these 22 

  • Published 5.07.18

The Searcher (2018)

Since Elvis Presley’s death on August 16, 1977, most books have focused on his fried peanut butter and banana sandwich days and how he took aim at his television set because singer-actor Robert Goulet had come on. The Searcher is a two-part documentary that separates the man’s music from his antics. Elvis’s former wife Priscilla Presley is a narrative presence throughout the film that features commentaries from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty (one of his last interviews) and Emmylou Harris. Over three hours, viewers are shown a treasure trove of unseen photographs and footage. “I wanted to attack and shatter the shorthand version of Elvis Presley’s life story — that after the Army there was just bad films, bad recordings, bad tours and then his life was over. This was a man driven by music, even at his darkest times,” says director Thom Zimny. 

Don’t Look Back (1967)

D.A. Pennebaker’s handheld camera follows Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of England. Memorable for its proto-music video opener Subterranean Homesick Blues in which the legend holds up cue cards with select phrases from the lyrics as much as for the tirade Time magazine journalist Horace Freeland Judson was made to sit through before a concert (“I could tell you that I’m not a folk singer and explain to you why but you wouldn’t really understand. All you can do is nod your head.”). And then there’s Joan Baez singing Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word in a hotel room.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

A Rob Reiner-directed mockumentary that has influenced countless filmmakers. The story is of a rock band — the “loudest band in the world” — on a tour across America to promote their mock album, ‘Smell the Glove’ while their career is on a downslope. Some of the pieces in the mockumentary — ‘Listen to the Flower People’ or ‘Big Bottom’ — could have very well been real... as real as their promotional gimmicks and philosophical rants. And the classic scene? “It’s one louder. It’s not 10. Most blokes be playing at 10,” frontman Nigel Tufnel says while showing off a guitar amplifier with knobs that go up to 11!

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin follow the Rolling Stones during the group’s 1969 American tour and the footage includes the California concert at Altamont where spectator Meredith Hunter was killed in front of the stage by a member of a motorcycle gang. The band didn’t call off the filming. The documentary showcases the band’s dark energy.

The Kids Are Alright (1979)

September 1967. The Who appears on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. How far could have this English rock band gone beyond smashing a few guitars? Drummer Keith Moon thought big! Between rehearsals, he rigged his bass drum with gunpowder. The producers didn’t know what was happening because Moon had bribed the stagehand. And it worked just the way it should. Backstage, fellow guest Bette Davis fainted! This is a documentary that captures rock ’n’ roll in all its glory.

The Last Waltz (1978)

Just before moving into top gear with Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese directed this classic concert film, a celebration of The Band, the group led by Robbie Robertson, which had been on the road for 16 years. It’s 1976 and the rock group performs its final concert in San Francisco. The film switches between songs from The Band’s farewell show and short interviews. Don’t miss the classic performances by Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond and many more.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

The opening scene has the iconic Nina Simone appear before a huge audience at the Montreux festival in 1976. First, anger fills her face and then comes a smile. “My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time, but she paid a price. My mother was Nina Simone 24x7, and that’s where it became a problem. When the show ended she was alone, fighting her own demons, full of anger and rage. She couldn’t live with herself, and everything fell apart,” says her daughter Kelly. For Simone, music and political consciousness almost always went hand in hand. This is a personal story of Simone, who went on to struggle with mental illness in her later years.

Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)

Shot on Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, a catty, egoistical Madonna is seen, complete with diva-ish interactions with Warren Betty (“She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk,” he says) and Antonio Banderas (“I want to make Antonio fall madly in love with me, only there was this one major obstacle, his wife,” says Madonna). One memorable moment is Kevin Costner’s brief appearance backstage. He calls her concert “neat” and then apologises for having to get back home to the kids. He turns away and Madonna immediately mocks him by sticking her finger down her throat to gag!

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Forgotten ’60s/’70s Detroit R&B singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez was considered by some producers a Bob Dylan. But when his music released, there were few takers in the US. His record label dropped him. Some even thought that he had taken his life by setting himself on fire or shooting himself at the end of his “final” gig. He didn’t. And he didn’t know that his music had become the soundtrack for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. This Academy Award-winning documentary first builds up the myth around the man and then presents the singer. Sadly, its director Malik Bendjelloul took his life soon after winning the Oscar.

Good Ol’ Freda (2013)

Ron Howard-directed The Beatles: Eight Days a Week is brilliant, capturing the Fab Four’s touring years. But Ryan White’s Good Ol’ Freda is one of the sweetest music films around. Freda Kelly was the Beatles secretary; she was the one who helped take care of daily business and made sure fan mails got answered. The Liverpool office worker who spent lunch breaks at the Cavern Club, ended up working with the band for 11 years. She has had several offers to write a book but Freda never wanted to sell her memories. And she gave away much of the memorabilia stash she had collected over the years.

20 Feet From Stardom (2013)

The opening scene beautifully presents Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side with its notorious lyrics: And the colored girls sing/doo, da-doo, da-doo, doo doo…. as a creative montage is presented. Director Morgan Neville’s bittersweet documentary captures the stories of backing singers (largely African-American) whose vocal magic has been at the heart of countless hits. Except for Darlene Love, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, most of the vocalists featured are not well known but they can be heard on legendary songs. Lending support to their work are interviews with the likes of Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger. 

Amy (2015)

A musical prodigy from a broken home finds fame but then she self-destructs. One of the most heartbreaking films you would ever come across, it opens with a home-video footage from 1998 — Amy Winehouse is playful, impersonating Marilyn Monroe. It ends in 2011 with her funeral. Like director Asif Kapadia’s effort about doomed motor-racing star Ayrton Senna, Amy too is rich in footage, giving the world a beautiful picture of her extraordinary personality. During her short life she is affected by her father Mitch walking out on the family, who returns later as this intrusive character. It was Mitch who advised Amy against going into rehab. The documentary presents an Amy the world never got to know.

Woodstock (1970)

It’s that summer festival which made history. The Michael Wadleigh counterculture documentary captures the event last year where over 550,000 people turned up, which is more than double the predicted 200,000, to listen to the Who, Janis Joplin, Santana, Jimi Hendrix and so many more. We suggest you get the DVD which has never-before-seen tracks by Hendrix, Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and others. The Academy Award-winning effort was edited by Martin Scorsese and team. 

Standing By (2015)

Six must-watch episodes. Arjun S. Ravi traces the evolution of the independent music scene in India in this web series produced by OML and Red Bull Media House. There are unseen footage and rare images in the mix. And there are, of course, interviews with legends like Carlton Kitto and Louis Banks, besides popular names from the contemporary scene, like Vishal Dadlani, Nucleya and Rahul Ram.

Glen Campbell… I’ll Be Me (2014)

A friend of Elvis Presley. An inspiration to Taylor Swift. An entertainer to millions. Music legend Glen Campbell set out on his farewell tour after his 2011 Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Instead of five weeks, he went on to present 151 shows over a year and a half. The film documents an extraordinary journey while his ailment slowly took over the Rhinestone Cowboy singer. The extraordinary moment in this documentary is when he records his last song, I’m Not Gonna Miss You. It goes like this:You’re the last person I will love/ You’re the last face I will recall/ And best of all, I’m not gonna miss you/ Not gonna miss you.

Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (1970)

Partly a concert film around Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas residency in 1970, the backstage footage makes this a must-watch. Here was the king of rock ’n’ roll entering into the jumpsuit phase of his career, surrounded by the Memphis Mafia (a group that was supposed to accompany, protect and serve Elvis). But there was enough energy left in his music. The man is seen at his peak as he practises You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, That’s Alright (Mama), Polk Salad Annie… There is a raw factor that went on to inspire generations of musicians.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

Musician-songwriter Ry Cooder, a friend of the documentary’s director Wim Wenders, was looking for story-songs that have been handed down through generations. His rediscovery of ageing Cuban musicians and the resulting concert at Carnegie Hall in 1999 is still talked about. The documentary mixes music with glimpses of urban life in contemporary Cuba. 

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

This is Martin Scorsese’s portrait of the “quiet one” from the Beatles; an attempt to look at George Harrison’s place in music history in the right perspective. The life of the artiste, the archivist and the mystery is seen over three-and-a-half hours, complete with rare footage and interviews with Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty and Dhani Harrison. A thrilling watch.

Anvil!: The Story Of Anvil (2008)

Canadian heavy metal band Anvil was going through the has-been phase; this is the same band whose stage antics influenced the likes of Metallica and Anthrax. But the band is not forgotten by its loyal fans. Director Sacha Gervasi follows Anvil on a comeback tour in Europe, focusing on the musicians who refuse to give up on a dream. Sprinkled liberally with humour, the documentary tracks frontman Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner’s friendship and banging egos, an incompetent management, changing tastes and the creation of a new album. It’s almost like a real version of This Is Spinal Tap.

DiG! (2004)

Ondi Timoner’s film charts the career paths and linked fortunes of two bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, with the latter’s singer, Anton Newcombe, being the focus. He is talented but is self-destructive and has a drug-addled clash with ideas about integrity, while the Dandy Warhols temper themselves. Timoner followed the bands over seven years, interviewing the members and capturing their on- and offstage triumphs and catastrophes.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

“Hello. Hello…. Hello. I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston. Many years ago, I lived in Austin, Texas. And I worked at McDonald’s. It’s an honour and privilege to state to you today my condition and the other world.” That’s not the brightest way to open a documentary but Daniel Johnston stirred up a frenzy in the era of cassette tapes. Breakdowns and depression turned his career into a nightmare. The childlike quality of songs like True Love Will Find You In The End or Some Things Last A Long Time and stories of how he tried to crash his father’s small plane are heartbreaking.

Leaving Home — The Life & Music of Indian Ocean (2010)

Director Jaideep Varma tailed Indian Ocean for months and the resulting film is an in-depth look at a band that’s rock and folk… a band that’s timeless. Amit Kilam, Rahul Ram, Susmit Sen and (the late) Asheem Chakravarty — all of them icons and admired by young musicians — are seen rehearsing and experimenting at their HQ, 16/330 Khajoor Road in Delhi. It makes for a very memorable 115 minutes of viewing.

Compiled by Mathures Paul
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