Top 5…music documentaries

Searching for Sugar Man followed me around all weekend giving me a hankering for more of the same. More on that film in a minute, but first a nod to a few others that took up residence among my favourites and never left.

1. Buena Vista Social Club

Not long into this iconic film, children gather in a vast baroque hall in Havana. Sunlight swamps the interior showing off a faded glamour that has seen more opulent days. Young girls raise their legs to their ears striving for ballerina perfection, young boys swashbuckle forward with straight-armed determination during their fencing lesson. Headless horses are mounted and cartwheeled off, pirouettes are synchronised, bars are leapt on and rolled around. All against the backdrop of playful tunes swirling through the air from a piano in the corner. This is what passes for a gym in modern day Cuba. Undiluted joy without dialogue.

The pianist is snow-haired Ruben Gonzalez, one of the now-famous Cuban musicians from the 1950s that time had forgotten until Ry Cooder discovered they were alive and well. Wim Wenders takes care of directing duties, but the magic is all theirs. Any discordant notes come from the consequences of Castro’s vision and question marks over ideas of freedom and success in the viewer’s head.

2. The Last Waltz

“They got it now, Robbie”, Neil Young nods to Robbie Robertson as he strikes up the opening notes to Helpless. The sound glitch may have had less to do with the error of his fellow musicians than Young’s own timing. Robertson later quipped that editing out the remnants of white powder around his guest’s nose was the most expensive cocaine he ever bought.

Lyrical has been waxed and wrung on Mawti Scorsese’s legendary finale concert from The Band and their band of off-their-tits merry mates, but how many have singled out Van Morrison’s high kick for comment? You probably read it here last. One for the wee small hours somewhere between that impromptu first and fifth beer. The perfect sing-along party for one. “Turn it up!” and try not to injure yourself emulating Van.

3. Strange Powers

Giving us a rare glimpse into the off-limits world of Magnetic Fields’ misfit and lyricist, Stephin Merritt, this fly-on-the-wall film follows him over a decade. Magnetic Fields inhabit that category of bands that registers near obsession from fans, or blank faces from everyone else because they’d never heard of them. There is a disturbing growth of a third group that well-up at weddings over Peter Gabriel’s sacrilegious re-hashing of the doleful Book of Love. Insert your own imagined withering response from Merritt to that.

We know little more about Merritt by the end. The complexity of his character remains in the shadows as the light is shone on the process of making the music that bends us double. His weary baritone is cooked up in a tiny apartment over ukuleles, his loyal cellist in the bathroom, the dutiful bassist in the sink (probably), all conducted by Fields’ stalwart, Claudia Gonson. Access is given to the touching, if sometimes painful, dynamic between Merritt and the expressive pianist, the other half of his on-stage double banter act, and sometime manager. Gonson worries aloud she will be creatively left at sea if the ensemble were to wind-up. What’s left unsaid is what will be lost to her personally if they part, but it’s written all over her face.

They’re still together. So try to see them, and this, while you can.

4. Dig!

What do you get if you cross The Dandy Warhols with Brian Jonestown Massacre? Two bands united by a love of psychedelic sounds and a professed urgent need to jointly get the revolution started. Followed by parallel rivalry, success and failure, orders to beat up their fans, one-up-front-manship, and a lot of sheer madness in this romp of a film that has guaranteed both bands a certain cult status and their surly faces in the pantheon of documentary greats.

5. Searching for Sugar Man

And so back to our man, Sugar. Look away now if you’d prefer to see it fresh.

The film follows a pair of South African music-lovers in the 90s on their trail to track down 70s troubadour, Rodriguez. The Detroit native’s two albums of peace, love, and gentle political resistance, met with paltry US record sales and he was deported back to obscurity. Meanwhile, his music went on to achieve iconic status in South Africa, overtaking Elvis at the tills with his face becoming a poster-boy for a mass of white students united in their unreported resistance to apartheid.

I’ve since learned on watching the film, that the obscurity Rodriguez was condemned to was not altogether permanent or exclusive. It left a slightly funny aftertaste. That his music was an instrument of protest among white South Africans was independent of his success elsewhere, but the latter not entirely from the portrait of him as an artist who was exiled in commercial failure. That is the parallel subject of the film, along with the meaning of success, and the force of an indomitable spirit that will find a valve in civilian life. The more wry and philosophical comments on the relationship between class and dreams came from the mouths of the most ordinary people featured in the film.

For those reasons, any inaccuracies can be forgiven since it’s still a great yarn. It tells the story of a remarkable man, and gives a riveting insight to part of South Africa’s hidden history.

Feel free to share any recommendations, or views to the contrary.

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8 thoughts on “Top 5…music documentaries

  1. Wot, no Spinal Tap 😉 I watched the Rodriguez doc too – isn’t it funny how music can travel so far without the man! I’ve still to get round to Buena Vista Social Club; which is odd because I’m quite partial to a bit of Ry Cooder. I love the stillness of heat he created with Paris Texas The jauntiness of My Name is Buddy still makes me smirk. I’m less fond of I Flathead, but enjoy the Carveresque qualities of Can I Smoke in Here. And here endith my music review.

  2. I have mixed feelings about The Last Waltz. On one hand, it contains what are among the band’s greatest performances (It Makes No Difference, Baby Let Me Follow You Down). But on the other, I don’t find it adequate for the band meant, for what they stood for. The humility behind their music doesn’t translate good into such a big event, in my opinion. Seems more fitting for someone like, I dunno, ELP or Pink Floyd. And my second complaint is that Richard hardly gets any spotlight; whatever state he was in, he still deserved it.

    • Hi there, thanks for this – sorry I’m only getting round to responding now. Yeah, I’ve read different interviews and takes on the film. Plenty of fingers wagging at the spotlight put on Robbie with many claiming he was portrayed inaccurately as the band leader. I think some of the others were disgruntled also. I have to admit I was a latecomer to The Band – both band and film. After a few years of heavy rotation by my husband I was finally seduced. And I just love it for the Van contribution alone. Hard to believe how many of them are gone now.

  3. Hi, I’m writing about every song that ever became a #1 hit, backwards chronologically, in the journey that is the Every Number One blog. I would really appreciate if you took a look around.

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