Rockumentaries; Cash-ins or Quality? Discussing the recent state of Rock Documentaries as well as some of the classics

Rockumentaries can be either gripping, vital cinematic portrayals of bands, concerts and music topics we love or they can blatantly exist to suck a little more money out of a loyal fan base. Lately it seems like Rockumentaries are predominantly for record companies to sell more merchandise, keep the product alive, make more $$$, such as Shihad’s Beautiful Machine, Katy Perry’s Part of Me or The Rolling Stones Crossfire Hurricane. Maybe I’m being a little unfair to Kiwi heroes Shihad, and I have not yet seen The Rolling Stones Crossfire Hurricane but anyone familiar with the history of the Rock Documentary form will know that these, at the very least stylistically, hold nothing on classic Rockumentaries such as Gimme Shelter (also The R’Stones), The Last Waltz (The Band) or Woodstock. Here I will discuss some recent Rock documentaries that do it well, some that don’t and some older classics that perhaps set the bar and for me still feel very fresh.

Two documentaries released in the last decade on the subject of bands I love, Westway to the World and Joy Division – A Documentary capture successfully the bands essence and put it on celluloid, while telling their story in a way that avoids being purely a cash in. Joy Division – A Documentary, through candid interviews presented an honest view of the bands brief career as well as events surrounding the tragedy leading to the death of singer Ian Curtis. It did not glamorise his suicide as perhaps the fictional cinematic version of the story, Anton Corbijn’s Control did so. Although I shouldn’t rubbish Corbijn’s film, it was also a gripped, well acted and beautifully shot telling of the Joy Division story, if a little biased towards his wife’s point of view, being that was the source material. Joy Division – A Documentary focused equally on the bands sound, not just on the tale of Ian Curtis. The effect of the industrial, desolate and grim surroundings of Manchester on the sound of the band is a theme running throughout the film, one that helps provide an understanding of the music of the band beyond Curtis’ obsessions and tragic lyrics.

Westway to the World does justice to the story of The Clash, a band with such energy and such a lucky combination of talents. It also shows how those talents can equally be taken for granted within a group and how success can disintegrate a band from the inside. Such quotes as this from Joe Strummer are truly touching and have stuck with me:

“Whatever a group is it was the chemical mixture of those four people that makes a group work. That’s a lesson everyone should learn, “Don’t mess with it!” If it works just let it… Do whatever you have to do to bring it forward but don’t mess with it. And like, we learnt that… bitterly.” (Joe Strummer)

Hindsight is indeed a great thing. Westway to the World to me is a well researched and executed modern rockumentary; it doesn’t do anything groundbreaking in terms of style but it is fair and does justice to the legacy of the band. Part of this is perhaps due to the direction of Don Letts, who followed The Clash through their career, first as an influential British DJ, then as their video maker and producer and later collaborator and bassist with Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite. Yet since the release of Westway to the World we’ve had another bunch of Clash related documentaries and DVD releases, all of these going further down the path towards cash-ins, such as the compilation of mostly already released live performances – Revolution Rock. Again directed by Don Letts, its another notch to the bands legacy and will no doubt be picked up by every old fan and some new ones in the process. It will probably even gift the surviving members with a bit more towards the retirement fund.

I haven’t viewed modern pop Rockumentaies such as Katy Perry’s Part of Me or Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never, so I can’t comment on whether or not this fits into my deduction that Rock documentaries of the 21st century lean more towards cash-grab efforts then artistic statements. Rotten Tomatoes tells me Never Say Never is “As a tour documentary…rather uninspired — but as a 3D glimpse of a building pop culture phenomenon, Never Say Never is undeniably entertaining”. It’s of its time at least. But from what I’ve seen of these documentaries, trailers, glimpses of them here and there-they are far from a honest portrayal of the artist. They instead present a view of the artist as that of one in which they can do no wrong, where the shit on the sole of their shoe is turned to gold by being in the very present of this God on earth.

What I wish is that we were still making Rock documentaries like they were making them in the 60s and 70s. Influenced and part of the Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite movements, documentaries such as Albert Maysles’ Gimme Shelter managed to be self-aware statements on the nature of stardom, the documentary medium itself and cultural changes at the time. Another Rolling Stones documentary, Sympathy for the Devil under the helm of French New Wave innovator Jean-Luc Godard managed to mix his idiosyncratic style with that of a fly-on-the-wall observationale style of documentary filmmaking. Or even The Beatles rarely seen (lately) final film Let It Be, which provides a warts and all glimpse at a brink of destruction. These documentaries, perhaps due to their style or the time they were made were not afraid to show the artists for what they really are. Gimme Shelter particularly grabbed my attention, due to scenes where Mick Jaggar and the other stones are filmed as they watch their own interview and live footage. This kind of documentary style is mind boggling given the vapid, contrived tripe we’re supposed to accept as a ‘documentary’ in this day and age. It’s amazing the Stones even allowed the film to be released given the way the filmmakers really pry into the emotions of Jaggar and company, laughing at their own jokes, appearing self-conscious upon hearing interview question answers and finally viewing the death of a concert goers at the hands of one of their hired Hell’s Angels security persons at the disaster of a free concert that was the 1969 San Francisco Altamont raceway event.

I should probably write more about Gimme Shelter rather than discussing these other documentaries, but it seems so much has already been written on it. The direct cinema style: the unobtrusive camera work, rough soundtrack, refusal of voice over narrator, are chosen by the filmmakers in their pursuit of truth on celluloid through the documentary medium. Gimme Shelter aims it’s camera’s eye directly at the band, Jaggar in particular, and shows him coming to terms, or perhaps not coming to terms with the consequences of what they created at the Altamont raceway. It is all fascinating filmmaking, not least for the scene in presents of the flip side to Woodstock, peace and love turned to chaos and death, a decade of dreams coming to a frightful end within this concert setting, as the reality of hate hits down hard on naive hippy concert goers. The people that are hired to keep the peace, the Hell’s Angels, prove that violence and anger boiling under the surface is stronger than the intended love of the event.

The Rolling Stones are shown to be responsible for this particular event, even if the complexities of that particular time of cultural change were equally responsible. It is from this train of thought that I come to think about the career of The ‘Stones, which perhaps started off this whole recent interest in Rockumentaries when the hype from their current 50th anniversary tour led me to get back into their music and subsequently led me to watch Gimme Shelter. The ‘Stones are a very visually documented band and have a lot of different documentary styles under their belt. There are the straight up concert films, such as 1982’s Let’s Spend the Night Together and the recent mix of concert, staged footage and archival material 2007’s Shine-A-Light as well as the earlier more artistic efforts I previously described. It doesn’t end here though, this year sees the release of Crossfire Hurricane, a tale of the groups rise to fame, and no doubt it’s history and legacy. As well as this, the final concert from their 50th anniversary tour will be broadcast live, pay-per-view over the Internet, direct from the arena in New Jersey. The fans are there, and there’s no stopping money and media Juggernaut that is The Rolling Stones from rolling on into it’s 6th decade. Will the new documentary or concert be relevant? I don’t know, there is a part of me that wants to celebrate watching late 60s and 70 year old’s still perform and I will most likely watch both for completions sake, but whether they’re necessary or not is another question entirely.

Perhaps I digressed from my original topic of Rockumentaries but it seemed fair to get caught up in The Rolling Stones for a little bit, seeing as how important they have been to the Rock documentary format, at the very least. What I would like to highlight, if I have not done so already, is just how awesome, thought-provoking and multi-layered documentaries such as Gimme Shelter are compared to those being released recently. Perhaps there are rock documentaries out there like this being made and released today, but I assume that if they are, they are being released in the digital space. Innovators perhaps are left to create interesting material for free on YouTube because mainstream releases are dominated by the cash-grab, seen-one-you’ve-seen-them-all, famous-artist-can-do-no-wrong style of the Bieber or Perry documentaries.

Maybe I’m missed something though, maybe there’s more to the Bieber, Perry or even the latest ‘Stones’ documentary then I know. If you’ve seen them feel free to comment and let me know.

Other questions that interest me on this same topic;

What are some of the best Rock documentaries released recently?

Are there any similiar in nature, tone or style to classics such as Gimme Shelter?

Is there more to the Bieber and Perry cash-in style documentaries then I give credit for; are these just as, or perhaps even more worth discussing as any classic Rock documentary?

Is anyone going to pay-per-view The Rolling Stones show in New Jersey?

Watch some films online:

Gimme Shelter:

Joy Division – A Documentary:

Westway to the World –

Links for further reading:

Interesting review of Gimme Shelter:

And finally here’s the Stones playing in 1964:



One thought on “Rockumentaries; Cash-ins or Quality? Discussing the recent state of Rock Documentaries as well as some of the classics

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