It’s a bit of a mixed blessing, being a fair-minded kind of guy with wide-ranging tastes in music and film. On the one hand, they are good qualities to possess when writing a book like Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey because I was easily able to give a fair shake to a broad spectrum of rock subjects and directorial styles, allowing me to reflect consensus opinion while blending in my own outlook on things.
But let’s face it: writing bad reviews is so much fun! Maybe it’s because I spent so many years reading Creem magazine with their famously smart-aleck record reviewers. How about this zinger from a write-up of Foreigner’s “Head Games” album: “I’ve listened to this album ten times and I still don’t care whether singer Lou Gramm gets laid or not.” Or consider this scholarly assessment of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Works, Volume 1”: “It ‘works,’ but only as a Frisbee.”
But out of about 170 reviews in my book, I could only muster up four pannings and a footnote for this thumbs-down sampler (mixed reviews don’t count here). Unchecked narcissism, unearned cultural annexation and the over-praising of marginal figures are a few of my rockumentary pet peeves. They all get an airing out below:
For a 30-page excerpt of “Rock Docs” and purchase info, please click on the link below.
From the review of Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)
At its best, pop music–like most other art forms, you would think—-reaches an optimal state when it becomes an inclusive and evolving community of practitioners spinning out a self-sustaining supply of good ideas that are built on and modified over an indefinite period of time. And then there’s Madonna. The former Miss Ciccione, who found fame in the early Eighties, was certainly not the first self-obsessed pop star to come down the pike. Born in 1958, she emerged from the 70s as a perfect embodiment of the so-called Me Decade, drawing all attention on herself and becoming the Material Girl without a whiff of irony. Along with her legions of fans, this self-consciously naughty “Queen of Pop” had her share of detractors—nowadays we would say “haters.” But if one of this latter group wanted to advance the premise that Madonna’s rise had something to do with the downfall of mainstream music, he or she would only need to point at this 1991 vanity project. Truth or Dare shows us a type of stardom that has little reason to exist beyond its own perpetuation.
The movie basically consists of two distinct and alternating elements. The concert sequences, usually featuring complete song performances shot in living color, are often quite striking and can reasonably appeal to more casual observers. These show Madge during the 1990 aptly-named Blonde Ambition tour, pretty near or at her career peak. The balance of Truth or Dare is comprised of black-and-white footage, mostly from dressing rooms and hotel suites, that self-reveal Madonna as a manifest destiny ego-tripper, playing indulgent den mother to her troupe of dancers, allowing other famous people to fawn over her, ratting out her brother as a drug abuser and patiently explaining to viewers her lingering vulnerabilities despite the fame and fortune. For those who are not rabid fans, these segments may prove to be an endurance test.
From U2: Rattle and Hum (1988)
The core appeal of U2 is not hard to figure out. They reflected the renewed musical excitement of the late 1970s without the abrasive clatter, had a sweeping sense of spiritual redemption and global concern (even if hazily defined) and made full use of grandiose gestures—all these elements found wide acceptance with kids coming of age in the 1980s. But they have to be one of the strangest examples of a “populist” band ever. True, they seized the moment at Live Aid when Bono climbed down from the stage to embrace fans, somehow capturing the essence of the mega famine-relief event. But a couple of years on, it seems like that kind of closeness is not part of the U2 business plan. When asked by director Phil Joanov at the start what this film is to be about, they can barely give him an answer except that it’s some sort of “musical journey.” Unfortunately, this means a trip that smacks of ego-tourism, traipsing across America, performing with a church choir in Harlem, pressing into Graceland and Sun Studios in Memphis, cornering B.B. King for a duet, staring soulfully at the Mississippi River while a song called “Heartland” plays on the soundtrack—all the while looking like they’ve become bigger than that which spawned them.
Most of this will hardly detract from the enjoyment factor with true-blue fans though viewers with a more discerning eye may find themselves exasperated. Even when the music was soaring something came along to dampen the mood: Was it really necessary that Bono should deface the Vaillancourt Fountain while doing a surprise outdoor concert in San Francisco—especially when he spray paints it with the humdrum phrase “Rock & Roll Stops the Traffic”? Despite their level of fame, Rattle and Hum only did so-so at the box office while setting into motion a cottage industry of Bono jokes that persists to this day (“Breakfast with Bono is the most self-important meal of the day” etc.).
Under Africa Skies (2012)
Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 album Graceland, partly recorded in apartheid-era South Africa, may be considered a landmark in the annals of cross-cultural pop music, but its making has always been dogged by controversy. This fact hangs over Joe Berlinger’s film about Simon’s return to the radically-changed country for a twenty-fifth anniversary event. Paul admits to not caring much “what the internal debate was” when he went there in ’86 without getting the blessing of the black liberation movement in the form of the African National Congress, despite being advised to do so by friend Harry Belafonte. This apparent disregard of the cultural boycott still sticks in the craw of people like Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo, who calls Simon’s original visit “counter-productive” to the cause.
But while Simon’s album and the subsequent tour may have enlightened Westerners to a vibrant but terribly repressed population, Under Africa Skies’ repeated moments of black musicians saying what an honor it was to play with Paul hints of white entitlement and that gets tiresome, if not borderline offensive, long before the film’s 100-minute running time has elapsed.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)
Early on in this film, when Daniel Johnston is introduced at a 2001 gig as “the best singer-songwriter alive today” those for whom this praiseful documentary was made will nod their heads while neutral observers may well start scratching theirs. His braying voice and incongruous philosophizing is guaranteed not to be to everyone’s fancy, but still director Jeff Feuerzeig lets stand numerous favorable comparisons that have Johnston right up there with Bob Dylan, the Beatles and even the greatest classical composers. Not long after he shouldered his way into an MTV special, he was befriended and/or championed by members of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and the Butthole Surfers among others. The Devil and Daniel Johnston may prove an uncomfortable experience for those not already converted as Johnston’s schizophrenia has led to violent and extremely reckless behaviors that have endangered himself as well as friends and families. Director Jeff Feuerzeig doesn’t tackle those kinds of issues, leaving his film to look like a vanity tribute to a hipster mascot.
So there you have it. The post probably would have been a little longer if it weren’t for the fact that were a few films (like the execrable Air Guitar Nation and the unfortunate Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Wild Man Fischer) that were so bad I couldn’t get through them so I just left them out of the book. Maybe I’ll just have to embrace the hate and do a whole post on the “best of the bad”, if I can only bear to watch