Cinema rocks, and rock’n roll wouldn’t exist without moving images. Rockers and movies are so intrinsically linked that it’s hard to dissociate one from the other. How else would you see the see Sid Vicious’s angry face and nimble fingers in action firsthand? And how would you experience the sheer madness of a middle-aged heavy metal band in desperate search of limelight? And what about the reclusive Scott Walker, how would you learn more about his dirty habits?
We asked the founder, director and programmer of the Doc’n Roll Film Festival Colm Forde to pick the top 10 rock’n roll documentaries ever made, and he came with an impressive selection of rock gems, as well as other popular music genres with a similar fervour and verve. The list includes from the fury of the Sex Pistols to the warm and gentle Buena Vista Social Club, from Nas’s fiery rapping vocals to Chet Baker’s soulful trumpet. Colm eats and breathes rock’n roll films all year round, so he should know a thing or two about the subject!
The Doc’n Roll Film Festival is now in its third year, taking place between November 2nd-13th in London. The event features music-themed films along with intimate Q&As with the scene’s directors, as well as live music acts and DJs. Just click here for more information about this year’s programme, which includes Gregory Porter (in the opening night at the BFI) and Placebo.
10. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2008)
“Anvil are the real Spinal Tap“, explains Colm referring to the spoof British heavy metal band. This rockumentary film about the Canadian heavy metal band Anvil was directed by screenwriter Sacha Gervasi. It includes interviews with other musicians who have been influenced by the band, such as Slash, Lemmy and Lars Ulrich. The film has received widespread praise and acclaim in many reviews, receiving a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
He concludes: “I was shocked by the two truly dedicated/deluded band members refusing to give up their dreams of reviving a barley existent fame they almost had 30 years previously. Worth watching for the sheer madness entailed in their quest for teenage rock stardom – in their late 40s!”
9. MC5: A True Testimonial (David C. Thomas, 2004)
MC5 are a Detroit-based rock band of the 1960s and early 1970s, and the film was produced by Laurel Legler and directed by David C. Thomas, who spent more than than seven years working on the project. Although the MC5 are considered very influential today, they were relatively unknown at the time. Thomas collected pictures and film clips of varying quality, including U.S. government surveillance footage of the MC5’s performance at the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He also talked to the surviving members of the band and their close associates.
“This is probably my favourite of all 10″, Colm fesses up. ” But unfortunately it’s almost impossible to get a copy of as it got pulled from distribution due to a legal injunction by one of the departed band member’s family. The history of a seminal rock band from Michigan, who truly didn’t give a f*ck who they upset in their quest for fun/sex on the streets. Kick Out The Jams Motherfuckers!”
8. The Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders, 1999)
Directed by the emblematic German helmer Wim Wenders, The Buena Vista Social Club is an international co-production of Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Cuba. It is one of the most commercially successful music documentaries of all times.
It documents how Ry Cooder, long-time friend of Wenders, brought together the ensemble of legendary Cuban musicians to record an album (also called Buena Vista Social Club) and to perform two times with a full line-up: in April 1998 in Amsterdam and then in July 1998 in the US (at the Carnegie Hall, in New York). Despite their geographic proximity, Cuba and the US couldn’t be farther apart, and so this concert is a major cultural and political accomplishment.
“An obvious choice, maybe – but this film sparked a love for the genre in me and spoke to my sense of history and adventurism. I love how it was shot with an affection and respect for its vital yet thoroughly ignored Cuban veteran musicians, whose joie de vivre is truly inspiring”
7. The Filth And The Fury (Julien Temple, 2000)
The doc about the quintessential of punk rock band Sex Pistols was assembled from unseen archive footage, rare offcuts and masses of hilarious junk-culture detail from the pre-punk 1970s. This is a invaluable historical register of a music movement with a very strong political connotation, and which would inspire generations to come. It includes never-before-seen Sid Vicious interview with contemporary quotes from the surviving members of the band.
Our rock’n roll man Colm Forde sings the praises of Julien Temple’s movie: “an absolute definitive Pistol’s doc by the filmmaker who grew up right along-side the band. Cleverly constructed to tell the raw story without any fawning or apologetics!”
6. The Devil And Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feurzeig, 2006)
“Manic-depressive genius singer/songwriter/artist is beautifully profiled in this portrait of madness, passion and love. An eye opener for me his championers include Matt Groening, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Beck, and Tom Waits” – Colm puts it succinctly.
American filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig examines the life of also American Daniel Johnston, a bipolar and emotionally explosive musician and artist. He uses a mixture of home movies, Johnston’s own audiotapes, vintage performances and current footage. Johnston has recorded more than 10 albums and amassed a prolific portfolio of lesser-known sketches.
5. Where You’re Meant To Be (Paul Fegan, 2016)
Cult-pop raconteur Aidan Moffat – best known for his work with Malcolm Middleton in Scottish indie rock band Arab Strap – sets out to explore Scotland’s past by rewriting and touring its old folk songs. He clashes the 79-year-old force travelling balladeer Sheila Stewart, who is firmly against the updating of the historical material. The film is a vivid dialogue between the old and the new
This one ticks all the boxes for Colm. He explains: ” the first time director’s gorgeously shot the Scottish Highlands. They are the backdrop to city indie boy meets old school folk artist determined to preserve the heritage of folk tunes, while Moffat is determined to re-invent them for his contemporary urban fans.”
DMovies‘ assistant editor Maysa Monção had a sightly different view of the movie – just click here for her review.
4. Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (Stephen Kijak, 2007)
The highly reclusive musician Scott Walker first became famous as a member of the 1960s trio The Walker Brothers. This documentary investigates his career, from teen idol to eccentric solo artist. “Admirers from Radiohead to David Bowie explain his legacy to doubters like me, convincing us by the end of the importance of this cult living legend.”
The movie does not delve into Scott Walker’s personal history. It just vaguely hints on a man struggling with chronic depression and alcoholism, but it never discusses his relationship. The focus is entirely on his music, and how it defined a human being.
3. The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
Seventeen years after joining forces as the backing band for rockabilly cult artist Ronnie Hawkins, Canadian roots rockers The Band call it quits with a lavish farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in late 1976. Filmed by Martin Scorsese, this documentary features standout performances by rock legends such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell and Muddy Waters, as well as interviews tracing the group’s history and capturing their road life.
Shot by Scorsese, this has got to be the concert film to beat all.
Colm first across the movie two decades ago: “Celebrating the The Band’s swan song of ’76 with an unbelievable supporting cast – Dr. John, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Clapton, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Wood, Van Morrison, The Staple Sisters, Muddy Waters…When I first came across it 20 years ago, I was blown away!”
2. Let’s Get Lost (Bruce Weber, 2008)
The life and the career of the legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker was beyond turbulent written and directed by the acclaimed photographer Bruce Weber. The title is derived from the song Let’s Get Lost by Jimmy McHugh and Frank Loesser from the 1943 film Happy Go Lucky, which Baker recorded for Pacific Records.
A group of Baker fans, ranging from ex-associates to ex-wives and children, talk about their friend and idol. Weber’s film traces the man’s career from the 1950s, playing with jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, and Russ Freeman, to the 1980s, when his heroin addiction and apathy towards towards his homeland the US made him stay in Europe.
To Colm, this is “a beautifully stylised portrait of jazz trumpeting legend Chet Baker on his last legs. Surrounded by ex-wives, numerous children and ex-cronies he still oozes charisma despite the final years of junkie abandon.”
10. Nas: Time Is Illmatic (One9, 2014)
The last movie on our list goes deep into the making of Nas’ 1994 debut album Illmatic and the environment that both surrounded and influenced its creation. Illmatic has become an emblem rap and hip-hop. It encapsulates the zeitgeist, the socio-political conjecture and the humanity or marginalised young black men in the US.
In Colm’s words: “Short and sweet – at 70 mins this film packs a serious punch in re-telling the creation of a hip-hop classic album from the depths of New York’s Queens ghettos. Celebrating 20 years since Nas’ debut Illmatic LP changed the game in both rhyming and production terms, it’s both a portrait of a young urban poet and a testament to sheer dogged determination against the odds.”