June is finally here, and this month marks the Toronto Film Scene’s Music & Film issue so it’s only appropriate that this edition of At Home Film Festival should highlight some of the best music documentaries available that you may have overlooked while scanning the rental store aisles. That being said, the films that I have chosen this month feature strange, subversive and downright rock n’ roll moments captured by the camera’s unblinking eye.
As a young girl, what drew me to music documentaries was the unquenchable desire to be as close as possible to the rock stars I loved. There is an old clichÃ© about rock stars that goes something along the lines of “men want to be you, and women want to sleep with you.” In my case, it was usually a combination of both. Being able to watch them not only perform, but to go about their daily lives was, for me, the ultimate in voyeurism. I could witness these stars in their prime, usually decades before I was born, and see them eternally beautiful, and indestructible in a way that only rock stars can be.
While they may not fit your definition of “rockstardom”, these documentaries feature incredible musicians doing incredible things, so come along and be a fly on the wall for some of the strangest times in music.
The Decline of Western Civilization
The first film on my list is a movie I saw as a teenager on a terrible quality VHS in a friend’s basement — and it was a revelation. As a young girl living in the suburbs with no sense of direction and lots of teenage angst to blow off, this movie was like a salve. The Decline of Western Civilization , directed by Penelope Spheeris in 1981, features a who’s who of L.A.-based punk rockers, including the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, X and the Germs. Apparently funded by two men who originally wanted to finance a porno, Decline offers up a combination of rough footage of the chaos at local punk shows, as well as intimate interviews with members of featured bands. Although many of those bands are still creating, or at least the their former members are still active in the industry, a few died just after the movie’s release. Because of this, Decline serves as a kind of time capsule, highlighting an era in punk rock just before the massive uprising in hardcore music (which also had its roots in California). Penelope Spheeris went on to make two sequels to Decline , one in 1988 featuring the California hair metal scene, and one in 1998 that revisits the punk scene.
The Rolling Stones have a number of critically acclaimed documentaries featuring them, including Gimme Shelter and Shine a Light , but this documentary always seems to fall under the radar. Cocksucker Blues was filmed during the Stones’ 1972 tour, and despite the rough, cinema-verite style, and the seemingly unending scenes of backstage areas, the movie is worth watching for it’s unblinking honesty about the lives of rock stars. Mick Jagger does drugs right before going onstage and roadies teach the documentary crew how to cook and shoot heroin all in plain view of the camera. After filming wrapped, the Stones, seemingly of sober mind, sued the director Robert Frank to prevent the movie’s distribution, and to this day there is a court order stating that the movie may only be screened once a year with the director present. That being said, Cocksucker Blues is highly bootlegged and quite easy to find.
1/2 Man (Halber Mensch)
Halber Mensch (German for “Half Man”) is a live art/music/dance performance by German industrial noise band Einsturzende Neubauten. Made during Neubauten’s 1985 tour, the hour-long video takes place primarily in a large empty factory. The band famously incorporates mainly found materials in their music, including large pieces of sheet metal, shopping carts, oil drums, drills and saws, and the massive oil works setting only helps to amplify the “industrial” feel of the music. However, what really sets this video apart is the brilliant and bizarre Butoh dancing incorporated by director Sogo Ishii. It is intense, spiritual, and weird as hell.
This last film is arguably the most well known of the four on my list, mostly due to the fact that it was directed in part by music documentary guru D.A. Pennebaker. Despite that, 101 is, at its heart, a cross between a reality television show and a concert performance. Instead of making another documentary following a band around aimlessly, directors Pennebaker, David Dawkins and Chris Hegedus set out to recruit a number of Depeche Mode fans to follow the band’s tour, ending at their infamous Rose Bowl performance in California. Predating MTV’s The Real World , it is essentially a video diary showcasing the band’s fans, rather than following the band itself. The result is surprisingly intimate and charming. Not only is there footage of the band at their artistic peak, before the drugs and rock star shenanigans took over, but there is also footage of the fans taken when they were young, naÃ¯ve and treated like rock stars themselves. A sweet touch comes on the DVD release: 20 years late, the directors tracked down some fans, doing just as much “where are they now” footage of them as they did of the band itself.
Stay tuned for TFS’ featured topic this month. We’ll be exploring music in film, celebrating the upcoming North By Northeast Festival and introducing you to some of the people who make films that are truly music to your your ears.