- Fri, 2012-08-10 16:31
This week sees the release of Searching For Sugar Man, a documentary about the mystery surrounding an American rock musician from the 1970s who was virtually unknown in his own country, but was a huge star in South Africa without even knowing it.
The film's release confirms 2012 as a busy year - relatively speaking - for the humble music documentary. Hot on the heels of Ice T's hip hop retrospective The Art Of Rap, it also joins Marley, Kevin MacDonald's re-examination of the life and character of Bob Marley. Not exactly a windfall of music-related blockbusters, granted, but a decent clutch given that music docs tend to be labours of love rather than box office gold.
By that same token, some real gems slip under the radar. For every Martin Scorcese directed epic about The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan there are scores of less well-publicised films that are nonetheless just as worth watching. Here are just a few...
DIG! (2004, Dir.: Ondi Timoner)
Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor, frontmen of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols respectively, started their professional music careers as best friends, hell bent on kicking off a new musical revolution together. As varying degrees of success and failure visit the two bands Newcombe and Taylor's relationship disintegrates irrevocably. Carl and Pete look like lovelorn teenagers compared to these two.
As much a story about ambition, the stresses and strains of friendship, and the destructive power of drugs and fame as it is a story about music, DIG! is a compelling watch regardless of whether you know or like the bands that it focuses on.
Tape Crackers (2011, Dir.: Rollo Jackson)
Michael Finch was in his early teens in the mid '90s, when jungle and happy hardcore were at their height of popularity and London's airwaves were a crowded clamour of pirate radio stations. A devoted fan of the genres, he fastidiously recorded as many broadcasts onto cassette tape as possible, also collecting the semi-official mixes that some stations sold. Fifteen years later he has a vast hoard of tapes and an unrivalled document of a scene whose musicians in the majority of cases never officially released their material.
A must-watch for fans of UK rave music, Tape Crackers also offers an insight into the obsessiveness that music can provoke in some people; anyone with a CD or vinyl collection will recognise something of themselves in Michael Finch.
Oil City Confidential (2009, Dir.: Julien Temple)
If you watched any of the BBC's recent Punk Brittania series you may well have heard the band Dr Feelgood being invoked as the godfathers of the British punk movement. The Canvey Island pub-rock band made a name for themselves in the mid-70s with their live sets of energetic, almost violent R&B, and their politicised and charismatic frontman Wilko Johnson created the blueprint for the Johnny Rottens and Joe Strummers yet to come.
Oil City Confidential is a biography of both the band and their inspirational leader, and gives valuable insight into the roots of the punk movement.
Dub Echoes (2008, Dir.: Bruno Natal)
For a relatively small island in the middle of the Caribbean, Jamaica has had an astonishingly significant impact on popular music across the world. Apart from giving us reggae it has exported a musical culture that has given rise to both hip hop in new york and drum and bass in the UK, as well as witnessing the birth of technologies and practices that helped to shape dance music from its earliest days.
Dub Echoes touches on all of these things, relating the story of Jamaica's soundsystem culture, alongside a detailed account of how the island's most famous producers changed the course of popular music with their experiments in sound.
Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (2008, Dir.: Sacha Gervasi)
You'd be hard pushed to find a fan of rock music who hasn't watched This Is Spinal Tap. The spoof documentary about a faltering but essentially loveable heavy metal band is a confirmed classic. So when Anvil came out in 2008 telling the story of a Canadian metal band who almost made it in the '80s and are hoping for a revival of fortune thirty years later, it was met with a collective raised eyebrow.
It is, however, a genuine account of a genuine band, and all the more entertaining for it. Though it might be hard to shake the Spinal Tap comparisons at first, the dedication and good-natured stocism of Anvil's hapless members renders them sympathetic rather than comedic characters in the end.
Meeting People Is Easy (1998, Dir.: Grant Gee)
It's possible that everybody in the world has heard of this documentary apart from me, in which case I apologise for including it, but I had absolutely no idea that a film had ever been made about Radiohead.
Meeting People Is Easy follows the band in the aftermath of the release of OK Computer, the album that established them as worldwide superstars, and it paints a portrait of a band struggling with their newfound fame and the inane nature of the attention that comes with it. In retrospect it fits perfectly into the lifestory of the band, but forget for a moment that they've gone on to even bigger, better things since and you could easily be watching the last gasps of a dying band.