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The 25 Best Rock Documentaries

List Of The Day

Master filmmaker Martin Scorsese is given access to the oldest (and once greatest) rock n' roll band in the land, the Rolling Stones, and he artfully shoots two nights at the Beacon Theatre in New York from the band's 2007 tour. It's now out on DVD for your home enjoyment.

While it's always nice to have quality footage of musicians you admire, it's a bit of a letdown when you consider what could have been done, considering Scorsese's track record and the excellent job he did with that riddle-master himself, Bob Dylan, with No Direction Home. He could've been put to work to search out the people still not dead who worked with the Stones over the years, who could lend us their insights before they are gone. For what is there besides posterity? But in the end, whether it's Mick Jagger's stubborn refusal to literally Don't Look Back, or part of some grand nefarious plan to keep Stones' fans forever frustrated with the lack of archival footage, Shine A Light doesn't exactly illuminate the Stones' best qualities.

Ironically, the best music documentaries, much like the best music books, often render the music beside the point anyhow. The director's skill, the quality of the available clips, the complexity of the characters at hand, the story that unfolds decides a documentary's success. There are a few films on this list that feature bands I don't care for. Or not enough to think that sitting through their film would reap any rewards. Yet, the stories are so compelling, the musicians so caught in their moment--sometimes a trainwreck, sometimes not--that you find yourself rooting for them.

Even at 25, I have had to leave a great number of fine documentaries off the list. By all means, leave your suggestions in the "Comments" section. As much as I enjoy reading about why I either am or am not an idiot--and some of you use some pretty creative spelling and punctuation, I must say!--I'm curious to know what your favorites are and why you like them. And I think your fellow readers would like to know that, too. Leave the drinking to me.

So, let's get this started!

25) I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco: It's kinda true that rock stars these days can be pretty boring. When your drug of choice is Xanax or Vicodin and debilitating migraines sap you of your strength, your level of decadence falls far short of anyone featured on Intervention. Alt.country stars Wilco aren't huge stars for a reason that goes beyond their dense, insular music that becomes the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. At heart, leader Jeff Tweedy is a quiet, modest man. His struggles come off pretty bland, but that's pretty much the temperature of the times in 2002: 60 degrees and raining.

24) The Last Waltz: You put Martin Scorsese in charge of just about any film and the results are going to at least be interesting. A planned farewell concert in San Francisco for the Band isn't the most riveting idea ever conceived. The Band worked an image of being "tired old men" from a lost wave of Americana long before Americana became a selling point for rock musicians, so there isn't much exuberance here on their part--though the interviews sound as if they were referring to happenings 50 years past, not 15. The electricity comes from their guests: Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, who bring out the Band's wilder side.

23) The Kids Are Alright: By using lots of vintage clips and jumpcutting all over the place, The Kids Are Alright tells the story of the Who without turning things into a plodding timeline or an incoherent conceptual piece like Tommy where I still can't figure out why the story of a deaf, dumb and blind kid was ever considered a good idea. Instead, they rely on the band's remarkable stagepower: Townshend's windmill guitar moves, Daltrey's tough guy poses and the Keith Moon chaos factor that turns drumming into a military explosion.

22) The Great Rock N' Roll Swindle: The Sex Pistols were a contrived mess whose behind the scenes movers and shakers knew all about art and fashion and took advantage of being in the right place at the right time like no others. While Johnny Rotten's snarl defined the band's sound and Sid Vicious defined the group's here today-gone today aesthetic, it was manager Malcolm McLaren who pulled the promotional strings and while he couldn't keep the band together, he could hire Julien Temple to direct this film and further confuse the band's history with more ridiculous myth. 

21) D.O.A.: This punk documentary by Lech Kowalski is one of those trainwrecks I was warning you about. Cheaply shot in parts and hard to watch in spots, D.O.A. follows the Sex Pistols on their disruptive 1978 tour with flashes to the Dead Boys and X Ray Spex and sad, pathetic footage of the real Sid and Nancy. After viewing, you might consider getting that accounting degree your parents keep insisting you need.

20) Gimme Shelter: Talk about getting more than you bargained for. The Maysles Brothers came out to shoot some footage of the Rolling Stones during their 1969 tour of America that was to commence with a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California. Hiring the Hell's Angels as your festival security clearly falls into the "terrible idea" pile and it almost feels pre-ordained that someone is likely to be killed in the process. Sure enough, as footage shows, a young black man is knifed to death while the band plays as if their own lives depended on it. Which apparently they did. 

19) Heavy Metal Parking Lot / Neil Diamond Parking Lot: Are Jeff Krulik and John Heyn gifted cinematographers? Well, they know how to point and shoot their cameras and ask the probing questions that get some penetrating answers. This short film documents the parking lot at a Judas Priest concert in 1986. Culture in decline or hair on the incline? Either way, the filmmakers couldn't resist returning to that parking lot then years after for a Neil Diamond concert where the result is tragically different.

18) A Tribute To Jim Morrison And The Doors: Issued by Warner Home Video back in the mid-80s before anyone had a handle on how to put together a rockumentary, and boy does it show! The vintage clips are worthwhile, but the modern day interview footage shot direct to video looks and sounds horrendous. Some guy is chasing a beach ball with his dog on the beach while a Doors acolyte tells you how "on the edge" Jim Morrison was. John Densmore sits in his nice house and admits the money was good. And Ray Manzarek--who also believes Jim Mo was on the edge--punctuates each sentence with the word "man" to the point where you stop listening to what he's saying and start counting how many times he says the word "man." So bad, it's perfect.

17) We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen: The Minutemen never broke through to the mainstream, but they did plenty of intriguing work in their respectable low-rent way--hence We Jam Econo. The van ride / interview with bassist Mike Watt keeps things moving and while it would've been even greater to hear more of what Joe Carducci, Richard Meltzer and Spot had to say about this quizzical trio, the fact that Thurston Moore appears alongside his massive record collection (or someone's) means it's a real documentary, since Union Rules clearly state his mandatory involvement in all punk documentaries.

16) New York Doll: Arthur Kane was not the most well-known member of the New York Dolls. Bass players usually suffer behind lead singers and guitarists. Just ask Duff McKagan and Michael Anthony. But this story of a man who became a Mormon but in his secret heart yearned to rock is poignant and tragic and far greater than the usual Behind The Music rise and fall and comeback.

15) The Beatles Anthology: The Beatles have been covered in many ways and there will always be someone with a story to tell. Heck, there's even a BBC documentary on Stuart Sutcliffe, the band's first bassist who died before they attained success. And while "authorized" histories are rightfully suspect, there's enough genuine footage here to make up for whatever whitewashes are in motion. Unfortunately, Lennon is still dead at this point and unable to revise his legacy along with the others. 

14) Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music: As VH-1's Classic Albums program proves, record producers merit their own line of documentary. How records are made can be just as interesting as how many lines of cocaine were consumed during the process. You don't have to be a musician to enjoy learning how others make you sound better. Tom Dowd worked at Atlantic Records and worked with household names such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker as well as little-known dudes such as Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Otis Redding and little Kenny Loggins.

13) Dig!: Now this is a movie. Anton Newcombe will probably never be a household name. His band, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, will probably never be a monstrously popular group. Though plenty of people call Mr. Newcombe a genius throughout this film, no music is ever presented to support this claim, beyond an ominous, raucous clattering. That his band is better than the Dandy Warhols is a very minor accomplishment. However, the chaos, the self-destruction, the fist-fights! Until a Fall fanatic issues The Official Mark E. Smith Story-aah! this is as close as we're likely to come to psychosis on film.

12) Hype!: Grunge rock was such a breath of recycled air and a jaded person's guide to mainstream success that it naturally lends itself to being chronicled by people who enjoy the joke and even help perpetuate it. There were plenty of enjoyable bands, making the scene and making friends, indulging in the energy of youth and having a good time. Success actually ruined everything. Throwing into question why anyone should ever try in the first place. Maybe they shouldn't. But I can't believe Megan Jasper's Grunge Lexicon that she supplied to the New York Times. You mean to tell me sometimes people make stuff up? That's illegal!

11) This Is Spinal Tap: No list of rockumentaries would be complete without this one. Marti DeBergi's incisive documentary of rock's loudest band is the template from which all great home office instructional videos are based. DeBergi had a promising career in advertising and surely could've made his mark on late-night TV infomercials. But instead he tackled Spinal Tap and chronicled the band's unfortunate mishaps with a record label that didn't understand the difference between "sexist" and "sexy" and compromised the band's very essence. Tragic and sad with a few humorous moments thrown in to balance the injustice.

10) Don't Look Back: Back when the world was in black and white, Bob Dylan was allowed onto public stages where apparently you were also allowed to smoke. He sang these long, rambling songs about social injustice and then started writing long, rambling songs about, well, no one knows for sure, but it was profound. D.A. Pennebaker followed along with his camera where he bumped into plenty of journalists who had a lot of stupid questions for Bob to answer. The curse for all future political debates was cast.

9) Jandek On Corwood: Most normal people have never heard of Jandek. And for good reason. At first, he couldn't even manage an unblurry photograph for his album cover. It took something like 12 albums before he tuned his guitar. Yet he kept releasing these albums, sometimes several within a year. He offered no biographical information and the myth grew. Though Jandek has since spoiled the mystery by letting his person be known and performing live at festivals, when this doc was shot, he was still a mystery and the drama unfolds here like no other. Critic Douglas Wolk also does a fine job breaking down Jandek's career without resorting to the kinds of cheap jokes of which I am way too fond.

8) 25X5: The Continuing Adventures Of The Rolling Stones: At this point, this film only covers the first half of their career, the first 25 years. Judging by how they run down their own post-1972 career--tour, album, album, tour, album, tour...most of the good days have happened. So, the second volume is sure to be less essential. You have to admire Charlie Watts though, for admitting that 25 years in this band has actually been more like five years of playing and 20 of waiting around. Like they say, you get paid for traveling, not playing. 

7) X: The Unheard Music: For a number of conspiratorial reasons--chief among them, it was the 1980s--the Los Angeles "punk and more" band X never reached a sizable audience. They did manage to pull together this well-done rundown of their career to date. Added bonus points for placing an "X" in many of the scenes. And watching drummer DJ Bonebrake keep 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4 time all at once is pretty weird.

6) The Decline Of Western Civilization: Punk One: For those who need even more Los Angeles punk in their lives, and further proof that the 4-H Club is in need of serious overhaul if they're going to appeal to teens, The Decline Of Western Civilization is a grueling manifesto of why we as a culture are headed down the proverbial tubes. Granted, the singer from the Germs, one Darby Crash, is now dead, and Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Fear, and Catholic Discipline are hardly the cultural threat they once were, but if we allow these people to play their music again, don't be surprised if the entire education system isn't eventually run by Tila Tequila. It's that serious.

5) The Decline Of Western Civilization: The Metal Years: Film director Penelope Spheeris takes on another cultural threat: heavy metal in the late 1980s. Again, she exposes the dangers, the bad hair, the decadence, the poor grammar that would threaten to topple a nation. This clarion call to action led to the demise of the genre as responsible teenagers everywhere quickly resorted to wearing flannel and moping around.

4) The MC5: A True Testimonial: You've got five seconds to decide whether you're going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. For every wiseacre who answered None of the Above, we salute you. This documentary has been held up in legal limbo for some time, but enough copies have leaked out for most reasonable people to have seen it. I'm not sure what would've happened if the MC5 had succeeded in their call for a people's revolution, but I'm currently enjoying the running water in my house if that's any consolation. It should be pointed out that "Kick Out The Jams," despite being heard about two hundred times in this film, is still an amazing tune.

3) End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones: That three of the band's main members are now dead reeks of a government conspiracy. After all, Crosby, Stills and Nash are all still allegedly alive and they're older! But then CSN never tried to uproot the establishment. Well, actually, they did, but everyone was too high to notice. While today anyone who's anyone and even those who are nobody (like me) profess to love the Ramones and wear their shirts as common as North Face, there was a time when you'd get beaten up for admitting you liked these guys. That these guys managed to stay together while not talking to each other for years tells you how overrated all that "personal chemistry" stuff is when you're making money.

2) Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster: Sure, we all wish St. Anger was a better album. That it ever became an album is a miracle after viewing this documentary. $40,000 a month on some Dr. Phil type who works the band through their issues until he thinks he's a member of the group. Singer James Hetfield goes off to rehab and when he comes back can't work more than four hours a day, while drummer Lars Ulrich spends most of his time talking about the progress they're not making. Next time you think your marriage is in trouble, take in a viewing of these guys. You have nothing to worry about. Unless, of course, your mate is setting the bed on fire. Then I'd worry.

1) No Direction Home: Bob Dylan: You take a talented film director like Martin Scorsese and give him access to tons of archival footage and interviews with key musicians and acolytes and you end up with this well-balanced gem where most importantly Dylan himself gets in the act. It's amazing what can be accomplished with a little cooperation. Now let's hold hands across America, shall we?

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