Process, Process, Process: Some Films About Making Music.

It’s Friday, time for Rock Docs And Biopics, a recurring feature on The Pulmyears Music Blog, where I suggest a few easily rentable titles (in most cases) for your weekend amusement. Where indicated some of these may be rare or as yet unreleased on home DVD. Many are available to stream directly from services like Netflix. Today we’re looking at Docs about the processes of musicians or producers, and the common theme is that they all take you inside the world of these people. Any one of these titles will open your mind to the folks behind the recordings – or compositions – you love. As usual this not meant to be a definitive list, just a starting point for your own cinematic musical journeys and I welcome any additional suggestions (on todays theme) in the COMMENTS section below.

TOM DOWD AND THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC – (2003) Directed by Mark Moormann

The story of  but despite many hits for Atlantic, the career of  Tom Dowd – the late, great producer and recording engineer – started with a bomb. Rather, it started with THE A-Bomb. In his teens, Dowd was in the Army when he was recruited to work on the top secret Manhattan Project, which resulted in the atomic bomb. Having learned a lot about physics and engineering during that time, Dowd turned his attention to recording, eventually catching the ear of Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, and became the maverick engineer at Criteria Studios, working on hits and near hits by Ray Charles, The Drifters, The Coasters, Ruth Brown, Booker T. and the MGs, The Drifters, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Darin, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, The Allman Brothers Band,Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, Dusty Springfield, as well as jazz cuts by Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and more. Under Dowd’s guidance,  Atlantic Records became one of the first recording companies to go to eight tracks, and he is said to have been a strong proponent of “going stereo” and the move to linear faders over rotary dials on recording consoles. But as important as those technical innovations were and are, it’s the story of the man and his commitment to music and recording that makes Moormann’s documentary so revelatory. And when you’re done, check out the other great sonic architect of the mid-twentieth century…

LES PAUL: CHASING SOUND – (2007) Directed by Les Paul

Thanks to the guitars he helped invent and market under his own moniker, Les Paul is a household name, but beyond the guitar stylings and innovations in guitar design, and pioneering use of tape manipulation (he invented overdubbing and tape speed tricks) there is passion. Passion for music, passion for technological advancement and passion for his former musical partner Mary Ford, with whom he made so many classic recordings like “How High The Moon.” Paul’s documentary, made for the PBS American Masters series follows the man from his impoverished childhood to the later part of his life when rock royalty, like Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Steve Miller and Bonnie Raitt would frequently come to his gigs at Iridium to sit at the feet of the master. Here’s the sequence where Les and Mary demonstrate the “sound-on-sound” recording process…

ATLANTIC RECORDS: THE HOUSE THAT AHMET BUILT – (2007) Directed by Susan Steinberg

In 1947, Turkish born Ahmet Ertegun borrowed $10,000 from his dentist and co-founded Atlantic Records with Herb Abramson. By the next decade, with help from his brother Nesuhi Ertegun and their aforementioned co-horts Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, the label became synonymous with quality Rhythm & Blues recording.  Steinberg’s compelling film, also from the PBS American Masters series, gets the story straight via interviews with the likes of Robert Plant, Phil Collins, Mick Jagger, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Ray Charles and even Kid Rock (!) all of whom, owed their careers to a little Turkish man with great ears. By the end of the 1950s, Atlantic’s only true rival for deep southern soul, was the multi-racial hothouse on 926 East McLemore Avenue, in Memphis, the one and only Stax Records…

RESPECT YOURSELF: THE STAX RECORDS STORY – (2007) Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

From 1959 to 1975, Memphis, Tennessee-based Stax Records, founded by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton was the premier soul music label in America, the place to find Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas and Booker T. and the MGs. Eventually, Atlantic came knocking and a distribution deal saw the two great powerhouses merge for a time. This film has it all, human drama, race riots, bad business decisions and the best thing of all, the wonderful, soul packed music. Eddie Floyd, Sam Moore, Otis Redding, Mavis Staples, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas all appear in interviews and Samuel L. Jackson narrates. Check it out, then head up north to Detroit, where soul and pop wore winter coats…

STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN – (2002) Directed by Paul Justman

One of the great unsung heroes of the Motown records was the house band who played on most of their hits, (featuring players like Earl Van Dyke, Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson among them) collectively  known as The Funk Brothers. Paul  Justman’s film finally tells their story with actual clips (and dramatic recreations, which I didn’t need). Narrated by Andre Brauer, the documentary culminates in a reunion concert featuring the surviving Funk Brothers fronted by folks like Ben Harper and Joan Osborn. Here’s a bit with Harper and the living Funk Brothers, riffing on “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”…

Speaking of unsung heroes, the guys who played on Phil Spector’s records (and on Brian Wilsons Pet Sounds sessions) finally get their due in a film that isn’t available on DVD yet, but that I nonetheless urge you to mark down on your have-to-see list….

THE WRECKING CREW – (2008) Directed by Denny Tedesco

Spector’s go-to guys (and one lady) were known collectively as The Wrecking Crew, (don’t rent the Dean Martin film by mistake), and among them was the father of filmmaker Denny Tedesco, son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco. The dutiful son gets the straight scoop on session life from folks like Glen Campbell, drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye (they coulda made a whole film about her alone) as well as the artists they backed such as Cher, Brian Wilson, and the Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz. Veteran American Bandstand host and rock deejay Dick Clark is even on board. Wait for this one.

Changing gears from R&B and Rock, a few “serious music” documentaries reveal the process behind major pieces of musical work.

GLASS: A PORTRAIT OF PHILIP IN TWELVE PARTS – (2007) Directed by Scott Hicks

Filmmaker Scott Hicks (Shine) shadowed composer Philip Glass around the world for a whole year, as he composed and recorded his work. Then he obtained exclusive interviews with Glass himself as well as his family and friends to humanize the man, shedding a lot of light on one of the most dynamic modern composers of the past 30 years.  Ravi Shankar, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Koyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio, all sing Glass’s praises.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: REACHING FOR THE NOTE – (1998) Directed by Susan Lacy

There are two great Bernstein docs, one is another from the excellent PBS American Masters series, this in-depth biography of an American composer, conductor who elevated musical theater with his vigor and directness. Archival footage and interviews with family and collaborators traces Bernstein’s life from his early successes (including his work with Stephen Sondheim on West Side Story) to his later triumphs. Featuring Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Isaac Stern, Michael Tilson Thomas, John Maucer and Seiji Ozawa.


Also check out…

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: REFLECTIONS – (1978) Directed by Peter Rosen

Recently released on DVD, Peter Rosen’s revealing film begins with Bernstein’s high-profile debut at Carnegie Hall (in 1943) and continues until his later years. Filled with great first-person interviews with Bernstein himself, we hear his musings on childhood, artistic development, his just who has influenced his own career.

TOUCH THE SOUND: A SOUND JOURNEY WITH EVELYN GLENNIE – (2004) Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer

Solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie is a fascinatingly fascinated, and curiously curious, explorer of “the connections between human sensation, time, sound and rhythm.” That’s because Glennie, hearing impaired since childhood, uses her heightened, compensatory sense of vibration to “hear” the beats and frequencies. Riedelsheimer’s film captures Glennie in improvisational solo and group performances in a variety of different ambient spaces, from a rooftop in Manhattan to a Zen garden. Also featuring avant garde musician Fred Frith.


I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART: A FILM ABOUT WILCO – (2002) Directed by Sam Jones

An affecting look at the tortuous recording process that lead to Wilco‘s nearly aborted fourth album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, from photographer Sam Jones. In the wake of the recent death of original Wilco member Jay Bennett, one year ago, this film, which captures Bennett’s ongoing estrangement from Jeff Tweedy, seems even sadder. And yet it’s kind of a happy ending story as their rejected album eventually became a classic (arguably) when released later by Nonesuch Records.

While I wholeheartedly recommend almost any of the Classic Albums series, here are a few must-sees…
CLASSIC ALBUMS, THE BAND: THE BAND (1997)  Directed by Bob Smeaton

A 75-minute look at the self-titled album from 1969, with , which examines the making of the group’s 1969 self-titled album, featuring interviews with Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson along with critic Greil Marcus and friends and admirers like Bernie Taupin, Eric Clapton and George Harrison, and performances of hits such as “The Weight,” “I Shall Be Released” and “Rockin’ Chair.”

CLASSIC ALBUMS,  STEVIE WONDER: SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE  – (1997) Directed by David Heffernan

It was Stevie Wonder’s 60th birthday on May 13th, so why not say “Happy Birthday to ya” by watching this engrossing exploration of his 1976 double-disc masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life. The show also features Quincy Jones, Motown founder Berry Gordy and Herbie Hancock, expounding on the album’s lasting influence, and we see Stevie”s daughter, Aisha, who we last heard as a giggling baby on “Isn’t She Lovely”.


CLASSIC ALBUMS – PINK FLOYD: THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON – (2003) Directed by Matthew Longfellow

Inside the studio and going to the Dark Side, we look back to 1973 with Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and the late Richard Wright (this program was made in 2002-3). The earlier bluesier version of “Money”, played solo acoustic by Waters, is worth the price of admission, but it’s a revealing layer-by-layer glimpse into the music that became the theme to every stoner basement party I ever attended in my teen years.

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4 Responses to “Process, Process, Process: Some Films About Making Music.”

  1. Hiya Paul, I really enjoyed your article and I liked the clips as well, very appreciated 🙂 Have a great weekend x

  2. have seen the dowd and standing/shadows/motown (great and great).

    am psyched to see the wilco and the stax story.

    and would watch the lennie if it was on again.

    now bedtime. sleepytime viewing: liars.

  3. Ardene Shapiro Says:

    Hey Paul, thanks so much for posting all these films, some of which I have seen, others which I will make it a point of following up on. I think I’d like to pretty much see everything. That Wrecking Crew one will be great cause I love the wall of sound, but how come they didn’t interview ie. all the women of the Girl groups, ie. Darlene Love, LaLa Brooks? Seems a bit odd. However, it looks fab and the Glass/Bernstein ones will illuminate, I’m sure. Have seen the Dowd/Motown ones. Great docs. Yeah, who knew Dowd had such a sphere of influence, like Les Paul. Cannot wait to see the one on LP too. Thanks again for the research and sharing. I have a special interest in music and film.

  4. Many thumbs up for TOM DOWD AND THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC. One of the best music documentaries ever made.

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