The Damned, seen in their early incarnation as a barbershop quartet.
It’s been no secret that for many years now rock ‘n’ roll has been in love with its own history. Whether it be in books, box set liner notes, social media chatter or at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, pop fans can’t get enough of the personalities and stories behind the music, almost as much as tunes themselves. Especially notable in this phenomenon is the role of the rock documentary. While working on my soon-to-be-released second book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, I had a close-up look at just how varied a field this can be. It can encompass concert movies, festival flicks, genre profiles, band histories or posthumous tributes to beloved stars.
Since the “50 year journey” of my book’s subtitle ends in 2104, this past year was the first one beyond its timeline. It was another good year for non-fiction films on rock subjects and as eclectic as ever. Since most rockumentaries are not blockbusters but smaller titles that are usually seen (initially, anyway) in indie theaters or on the festival circuit, I’m limiting this to a Top Five with some honorable mentions. Some notable titles I missed first time around and may just be getting around to online release or on DVD. I’ve got some catching up to do!
Amy (Directed by Asif Kapadia).
Only a year after Amy Winehouse death, film director Asif Kapadia was approached by her father Mitchell and her record company (Universal Music UK) to make a legacy documentary of the North London-bred retro soul singer whose “Back to Black” won five Grammys and sold in the millions. Kapadia was given use of Amy’s music and other materials but he was wary of being led into producing a “whitewash” film and crucially asked for (and was granted) complete creative control. Kapadia went out and made a film full of the soul-searching that should have taken place by gravy-train-riding parents and businesspeople while the talented but troubled Winehouse was still alive. Kapadia was greatly helped by the participation of two of Winehouse’s best girlfriends from her youth and esp. by Nick Shymansky, her first manager but also a teenage companion of hers: it’s Shymansky’s many camcorder clips that show a young, ebullient and astute singer-songwriter before she was caught up by her own demons and by the strangulating grip of modern society’s obsessive media machine, which began (as always) with an embrace.
My review was titled “Rehab Needed for Fame-Addicted Society,” which also seems to be the angle for this alternate trailer.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll (Directed by John Pirozzi)
The freedom to live out a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, taken for granted by several decades worth of young people in Western nations, may never be regarded so lightly again after viewing John Pirozzi’s mesmerizing documentary. Whether or not the viewer realizes beforehand that Cambodia had a vibrant pop music scene in the 60s and early 70s will hardly matter once he or she is drawn into the film’s orbit. What most will know going in is that this thriving youth movement was destined to be crushed, along with all else, when the homicidal Khmer Rouge forces took over the country in a terrible offshoot of the Vietnam War. Using interviews with survivors, evocative period footage and vintage vinyl, Pirozzi conjures up a regenerative tale despite the historical horrors. It’s a case of mankind’s better nature, here in the form of musical enrichment, persevering even in the face of the worst fanatical impulses this sorry world has to offer.
Available to download now.
The Wrecking Crew (Directed by Denny Tedesco).
There have been several documentaries in recent years—like “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” or “Twenty Feet from Stardom”—that have told the tales of unheralded musicians and vocalists. “The Wrecking Crew” (which played at festivals in 2008 but didn’t get a proper release until last year) is one of the more high-spirited of this group. Whereas many of the principals in those other two films were ripped off and/or forgotten, the L.A. studio musicians here look back fondly at their heyday, when they provided the expert backing tracks for some of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. Names like Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine and Tommy Tedesco may not be household brands but they were well-compensated session pros (often with families to support) whose enthusiasm in explaining how they helped make musical history is intoxicating. Still, the old star-centric ways are hard to nudge and this film’s own theatrical poster only mentions the artists the Crew supported (the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel etc.) as well as one of their number (Glen Campbell) who went on to a high-profile solo career.
A nice clip from “The Wrecking Crew” featuring bassist Carol Kaye
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead (Directed by Wes Orshoski).
As early as 1972, there was a book out called “No One Waved Good-Bye: A Casualty Report on Rock and Roll” with pieces by the likes of Lilian Roxon and Richard Meltzer. Early martyrdom is held in especially high esteem and 2015 saw the releases of several such remembrance films like the ones on “27 Club” inductees Kurt Cobain (“Montage of Heck”) and Janis Joplin (“Little Girl Blue”). Leave it to the irreverent British punk pioneers The Damned to gang tackle this issue and even name it out in the title of their very own rockumentary. Director Wes Orshoski—who previously made the excellent “Lemmy” about the Motorhead metal icon who, alas, died last month—seems to relish ornery, hell-raising characters and he’s got a handful here with Capt. Sensible, Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies and Brian James. The Damned had a gift for being both shambolic and crafty, and they were releasing records and touring the States before their more famous contemporaries in the Clash or Sex Pistols. One of the more entertaining band bios of recent years, “Don’t You Wish” is a giddy succession of archival hijinks, concert clips both past and present, interviews and memory-lane walkabouts, like when the Captain hilariously (and scatologically) revisits the site of his old job as a washroom attendant. It’s not all Knees-Up-Mother-Brown as the film does not shy away from the long Scabies-Sensible feud or the difficulties of musicians in survival mode long after their career highwater mark. A fitting tribute to a group of fearless originals, even if they still feel that their legend would have been more lucrative if one of them had just croaked along the way.
Let the F-bombs commence.
Lambert & Stamp (Directed by James D. Cooper).
Even with the most well-known bands, there seems to be this determination to find a fresh angle. A couple of years back it was the delightful insider’s-look “Good Ol’ Freda” about the previously unsung Beatles’ secretary and fan club president. In 2015, we got a new perspective on the Who via this appealing and incisive profile of their original managers. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were an unlikely duo: the former was the Oxford-schooled son of composer Constant Lambert and the latter grew up in London’s gritty East End and was brother of actor Terrence Stamp. They originally hooked up with the scruffy and still-unsigned band led by Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey so they could appear in a New Wave-style film on Mods that the pair wanted to produce. But after that was shelved they ended up being the group’s seat-of-the-pants managerial team, and their differing backgrounds helped develop that deft blend of high art and street sense that is the band’s enduring ethos. Cooper’s skillful debut film is a great mix of (often rare) period footage and extremely candid present day interviews, bringing back alive a world less rigidly corporate where such a group of disparate but highly creative individuals could help re-invent popular culture. Lambert died in 1981 and isn’t here to speak for himself but Stamp is interviewed (though he passed away shortly after filming) and Pete and Roger also get in their three pennies worth each and, in a segment where they sit down together, actually come to closure on a couple of contentious points that they seemingly haven’t brought up in decades. Don’t close those history books just yet.
Honorable Mentions, Subjects For Further Study, etc.
A special mention goes out to the riveting The Case of the Three-Sided Dream about jazz shaman Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It came out in 2014 but I didn’t see it until a screening at the all-doc Salem (Mass.) Film Festival last March. At the Q&A, older attendees were much impressed that the young director, Adam Kahan, should choose as his subject a musician who lived from 1935 to 1977. He replied that when he came of age, it just occurred to him that he should start expanding his cultural IQ and in this process being enamored of Kirk. A nice reminder that learning and being smart is fun and that the knowledge gained does not discriminate about what’s old or new, that it’s all one long continuum for all to partake in.
Another film about a jazz maverick, What Happened, Miss Simone has been getting super reviews but unfortunately I haven’t got around to it yet. Both it and “Amy” have been short-listed in the Oscar documentary feature category and it’s quite possible that one of them may win. If so, it would make three popular music documentaries in the last four years to win that category, after 2013’s “Twenty Feet From Stardom” and 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man.” Before that, the only other rock doc to win was “Woodstock” way back in 1970.
Musical non-fiction films have really come of age and it’s only getting better. My catching up this week includes Janis: Little Girl Blue, The Revenge of the Mekons and hopefully, if I can get out that night, the new Elvis Costello concert film, Detour–Live at Philharmonic Hall. If there is any films in this category that I haven’t mentioned and that caught your eyes and ears in 2015, please let me know.
My new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, will be released in spring 2016.