I recently saw The Punk Singer about Bikini Kill/Le Tigre/Riot Grrl founder and feminist icon Kathleen Hannah. I got thinking about some of my favourite rockumentaries – films that not only serve as fitting tributes to the artists they celebrate, but that are original, well-crafted works of art in their own right.
Here are some of my favourites – a couple of classics and a few less-known gems.
Straight No Chaser (1988)
Famously produced by Clint Eastwood, this seminal documentary portrays bebop heavyweight Theolonius Monk as a brilliant, enigmatic and frequently perplexing persona, equally blessed and cursed by his genius.
While unflinchingly honest interviews with friends, family and fellow musicians paint a comprehensive portrait of the jazz pianist and composer’s life, the most thrilling aspect of Straight No Chaser is the extraordinary wealth of video footage featuring Monk in the 60s and 70s. Not only are there exquisitely filmed, searingly intense sequences of his mesmerising live performances, but remarkable snippets of Monk in the studio, and going about his daily life under the gaze of the public eye, interacting with amusing stand-offishness with fans, the press and numerous hangers-on.
In an era before cameras and video phones followed the every move of stars, Straight No Chaser’s treasure trove of fly-on-the-wall material is rare and fascinating indeed.
The Fearless Freaks (2005)
The Flaming Lips are larger-than-life on stage, but this poignant documentary, directed by friend and confidant Bradley Beesley, presents us with a deeply intimate portrayal of the bunch of young, ragtag suburban upstarts and outcasts who united against working class suburban drudgery to celebrate their weirdness through music.
Their evolution from chaos-worshipping punk rockers to intrepid experimental aural magicians is insightfully explained from both a social and artistic perspective.
Drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drodz was deep in heroin addiction when filming began, and the doco doesn’t shy away from confronting an issue which was threatening to tear the band apart.
Autoluminescent casts a light on the life and legacy of Australian songwriter Rowland S Howard. Best known for his role in The Birthday Party, his strange, savage discordant guitar work was as essential to the band’s sound as Nick Cave’s guttural vocals. Although his pioneering post-punk days left a profound mark on a diverse array of well-known artists, and he continued to write and record for decades after The Birthday Party’s demise, Howard was to remain a relatively obscure underground cult figure.
For many viewers, Autoluminescent succeeded in the difficult challenge of creating a compelling first introduction to the man and his music, while for fans, the depth of the film’s admiration for Howard, flaws, failures and all, is powerfully apparent and immensely touching. The film’s shadowy aesthetic and gothic imagery, intermingled with excerpts from Howard’s unpublished novel, subtly overshadow the entire film, making his creative spirit and enigmatic, introspective persona a pervasive presence in the film.
The interviews with Howard himself make Autoluminscent a rare depository of oral history chronicling a brief, exciting time in the underground music world of the early 1980s, and an even rarer insight into his personal trials and triumphs after those heady, chaotic days.
Howard appears frequently in the film, clearly ill, gaunt and ghostlike but in good spirits. He died of liver cancer in 2009, while the film was still in production.
X: The Unheard Music (1986)
What makes this documentary a vestige of quintessential punk rock awesomeness is how vividly it reflects the time-period in which it was made. Interspersed with footage of the band are snippets from outrageously tacky yet uncomfortably earnest TV commercials, and satirical cartoons that place X firmly in the cynical times of Reagan’s America, a time where both ‘corporate greed’ and ‘corporate rock’ had become part of the cultural lexicon.
The members of X pay homage to their humble beginnings and underground roots, with a film that is also a tribute to some of the lost venues that were integral to the 80s punk scene in LA. Members of the band traipse through abandoned warehouse venues and recall their memories of legendary clubs like The Masque and the Whisky A Go-Go. A playful dynamic between the band members as they goof off during interviews, rehearse and relax is a delight to watch, and there are intriguing grabs of the half-told tales and cryptic musings of Exene Cervenka, one of punk’s most fascinating and influential frontwomen and songwriters.
A movie with a fittingly homemade feel and a message of DYI and defiance that doesn’t ever take itself too seriously, The Unheard Music is one of the punkest punk rock documentaries ever.
Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements (2011)
The other movies I’ve mentioned are noteworthy in that you don’t have to be overly familiar with the subject to have an enjoyable and fulfilling viewing experience. Color Me Obsessed might be the exception.
I was emotionally overwhelmed by this sincere and deeply affectionate tribute to The Replacements through the eyes of their fans. My boyfriend, who finds The Mats mildly likeable at best, fell asleep a quarter of the way through. Still, any way you look at it, this is an utterly unique take on the rockumentary format, not in the least because it doesn’t feature a single appearance from any member of the band, or even a fleeting excerpt of any of their music. Instead, the film relies wholly on the experiences, anecdotes and reflections of fans.
There’s a refreshingly effortless, unforced manner in which the progression of interviews lays bare the most profound, telling and intimate ways people relate to the music they find meaning in. It’s a brave concept that manages not to become mired in gushing sentimentalism.
It all works surprisingly well – if you’re a fan. The ordinary people in this film spoke to straight to my heart, but if you’re not already on the same page, you’ll probably find Color Me Obsessed’s efforts admirable but ultimately tedious.