NEW FRIDAY FEATURE: Rock Docs And Biopics!

Yesterday, when I was going on about the new Ian Dury biopic, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, I touched on the subject of rock documentaries (factual non-fiction) vs. biopics (dramatic recreations). It reminded me that I’m always making suggestions of rock films (in both categories) to my friends as the weekend comes up. So I have decided to begin my first weekly feature, Rock Docs & Biopics, to throw out a few titles as the weekend approaches. Your video store may not have them in time for the weekend, you may have to use Netflix or whatever service to order them for NEXT weekend, but hopefully these features will give you something to look for – and look forward to seeing – on the weekend. (One caveat, all titles discussed must be commercially available on DVD, although I will from time to time give a little shout out to a relevant out of print or unavailable title.)

I think it would be useful to group certain titles by broad thematic links, this way you could make mini-film festivals and really have fun with it.

Today’s feature: Exploding Drummers and Stock Guitar Solos – Tales Of Dysfunctional Bands

Academically, it could be successfully argued that all bands are dysfunctional, so this category may be misleading. But what I’m going for are films that show a band (sometimes fictional) either breaking up or at least breaking down. 

THE BEATLES: LET IT BE (1970).

Seeing as one of the greatest “warts and all” rock documentaries ever to capture a band in mid-breakup is still not available on proper DVD release, I’ll only refer to it in passing here. Paul wants George to play it a certain way, George wants to be anywhere but here. Ringo goes AWOL and John visibly rankles everyone else by making every day Bring Your Conceptual Artist Wife To Work Day. Culled from over a hundred hours of tense footage, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg still managed to cobble together a happy ending of sorts with the famous Apple Studios rooftop concert sequence, truncated by the arrival of the Five O’s, but not before John leave us with what will be his last ever words uttered from a Beatles stage, “On behalf of the group and myself, I hope we  passed the audition.” You did, John. You did. Suffice to say, it was the gold standard for many years in terms of uncomfortable moments mixed in with musical numbers. Come on Paul and Ringo, you KNOW we’ll buy it (haven’t we proved that with the box sets last year?) so get on it, guys.

The only non-fiction film that comes near it has to Rob Reiner’s celebrated “mockumentary”…

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984).

“Yes,” intones Christopher Guest’s Jeff Beck-like lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, “but this goes to 11…so it’s one louder!” It’s funny because it’s true. Musicians were among the the first to latch onto this uproarious ensemble parody of the rock and roll music industry –Reiner’s directorial debut –but like the slow and steady rumble of the bass lines from Tap’s “Big Bottom”, word soon spread to fans of comedy films at, um, large. The Tap, as fans came to know them, were a fictional band, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t real for it’s creators, Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, all of whom had grown up loving rock and roll, but being comedy writers, they could never take rock excesses too seriously. Reiner’s Scorsese-ish onscreen director character Marty DiBergi (his visible  fan worship a clear homage to Scorsese’s in The Last Waltz) attempts to interview the Tap on the eve of their Smell The Glove tour, as everything goes pear shaped around them from the all black album cover,  “It looks like death,” opines McKean’s David St. Hubbins, to comically incorrect Stonehenge models and mysteriously changing herpes sores. Underneath it all, however, is a heartfelt tribute to the enduring fantasy of rock and roll brotherhood and the enduring friendship of Tufnel and St. Hubbins.

It seems almost ironic then, that the closest real life comes to Spinal Tap is a non-fiction documentary featuring a drummer actually named Robb Reiner.

ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008)

Director Sacha Gervasi captures a band, Toronto’s Anvil, who missed their big break and in the process somehow bends the river of fate, giving them something that most band’s never get, a second chance. You start out laughing, just a little, at leader guitarist/singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow, whose never-say-die attitude steamrolls his band, particularly his drummer and best friend for life Robb Reiner, ahead to a future that increasingly only he can see. And yet, we begin to root for these metalllic Seabiscuits and can’t help but fall in love with Lips and as he refuses to put aside his rock and roll dream. Never has a feel-good picture felt so sweaty and cold in the “all hope is lost” sections, but Gervasi does a deft job of turning it around just when it all gets too Tappish. By the end of this film, you’ll be air-shredding along to “Metal on Metal” or “Thumb Hang.”

Which brings us to a non-fiction metal doc from the entire other end of the success spectrum.

METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (2004)

Imagine if, instead of breaking up before our eyes in Let It Be, The Beatles had instead hired a California “Life Coach” and hugged and clawed out their differences on film. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky had previously worked with a trio of complicated siblings in their documentary  Brother’s Keeper, but to be fair that film –which deals with a trio of mountain men hillbilly brothers who sleep together – was a lot less in-your-face! Beginning with the departure of Metallica bassist Jason Newstead on the eve of the band’s rehearsals for what would become their St. Anger album, Some Kind Of Monster follows what happens next as amiable producer Bob Rock fills in for the sessions, trying to forestall the inevitable pink elephant in the room. The long layover has turned into a bad hangover as drummer found Lars Ulrich begins to challenge guitarist singer James Hetfield for control of the band. Meanwhile, Hetfield comes to terms with his chronic alcohol abuse and while he’s getting sober, he’s not having Ulrich’s intensity. A clash ensues, leaving pacifist third member, lead guitarist Kirk Hamnett to try and make peace like the innocent child of a messy divorce. Enter corporate relationship therapist Dr. Bruce Towel, who insinuates himself into the band’s working dynamic while taking in a $40,000 a week for his open-ended services.

It all culminates in Metallica’s live comeback show, with new bassist Robert Trujillo at San Quentin Prison, a fitting metaphor for a band trapped by their own mega-success. The same could not be said for our last band today…

DiG! (2004)

What happens when you’re the most important band on earth, but hardly anyone else thinks so? Well, if you’re Brian Jonestown Massacre‘s messianic leader Anton Newcombe, you fight with your bandmates, you fight with your friends band, and you fight with yourself. Ondi Timoner’s documentary was shot over seven years and culled, she says, from over from 1500 hours of footage. It chronicles, in painful detail, Newcombe’s erratic behaviour and dealings his bandmates and his love/hate relationship with his rivals band, The Dandy Warhols, who are climbing to (temporary) major label success and driving Newcombe insane with jealous rage in the process. Touchingly, this is a source of chagrin for Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor, who loves the Massacre so much that no matter how much Anton calls him a sellout he still cares, enough so that he narrates the film. Fascinating stuff.

Get viewing.

Please use the comments section to share your thoughts on any of these films, or to tell me about a dysfunctional band movie (hopefully available for rental) that I haven’t mentioned, and tell me why I should see it.

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3 Responses to “NEW FRIDAY FEATURE: Rock Docs And Biopics!”

  1. Hi Paul, Oil City Confidential a rock doco about Dr Feelgood is pretty cool, very entertaining,touching and ` dysfunctional!!!` Not yet available on DVD I`m afraid ( more or less just released) but you can watch it on BBC iplayer 🙂

  2. The moment in Aerosmith’s “The Making of Pump” where Joe Perry blames his facial tic on Steven Tyler is pure Tap. And watching Tyler dictate from his throne of keyboards gives you the merest glimpse at what it is like to deal with him on a daily basis.
    Also, watching Billy Corgan wrestle his narcissism enough to finally (sort of) admit that there is no Smashing Pumpkins without Jimmy Chamberlin in “Smashing Pumpkins: Full Circle” is mildly amusing. The guy kicks him out of the band and the only drummer who can temporarily fill his shoes is Kenny Aronoff. Even then he has to break down and get Jimmy back (consulting Dr Joyce Brothers to do so) because Billy’s musical well runs dry without him, and all he can say is, “I don’t want to play these songs with anyone else.” What he means is, “I CAN’T play these songs with anyone else… because no one else can play them.”
    I’m not suggesting you run out and pick up either of these titles, but if you happen by them they are both classic examples of dysfunctionality within bands.
    And I’m guessing you will touch on “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” in an upcoming thread (not really a dysfunctional BAND, but certainly a tragically dysfunctional artist).

  3. Max Hutchinson Says:

    Heya Paul,

    If you haven’t seen it, there’s a Spinal Tap-esque English film called Bad News, which I recommend, about a fictitious English hard rock group of the same name. As with the Anvil movie, it features cameos from real rock stars like Ozzy and the Scorpions, talking about how Bad News sucks, etc. Worth a watch if you can find it.

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