The midst of the holiday season—post-concert, pre-shopping or party-time plateau—is a perfect time to tune your video-viewing contraption to the rock and roll station. It’s a place where dreams come true and don’t, history is sometimes made, and ultimately it’s the perfect place to disappear when you’ve had your fill of latkes and sufganiyot or your favorite cousins have taken the last of your gelt, rocking gimmels for an hour while you spin shin after shin.
20 Feet From Stardom
Begin your holiday by engaging Morgan Neville’s Academy Award-winning documentary on the bright-but-sometimes-dusky world of backup singers. 20 Feet From Stardom delves into an oftentimes overlooked realm and subculture within the music community. It’s a kingdom of triumph and tragedy, buoyed by hope, superb talent and perseverance. Backup singers add a depth to recording and performance that’s integral to music that rises above normative. Prominent players like Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler and Bruce Springsteen attest to that fact in this film, but the show here belongs to their support. Without the divine chops of folks like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Judith Hill (to mention just a few), the recording artists mentioned above might sound half-hearted or simply come undone. This film defines the depth of contributions made by a group of performers who are often more talented than the stars they stand behind.
While on holiday, take a trip to Muscle Shoals for a heady look into the location and processes that built and sustained many a musical dream. Founded by visionary soundman Rick Hall, the recording facilities at Muscle Shoals have hosted notable musicians from one end of the generational and genre spectrum to the other, from Gregg Allman to Alicia Keys. The film takes note of the musical magic and magnetism that brought so many to the river’s edge in Alabama to formulate and create some of the biggest sounds ever produced in America. Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier does a superb job of revealing the history of the joint, its evolution and influence in a naturalistic style that emphasizes both the music and the underlying, uncanny psychogeography so many players found alluring while working at Muscle Shoals. Enticingly educational and earnestly entertaining, here is a rockumentary that is plain in presentation but profound in its implications.
Metallica Through the Never
Just like the holidays, concert films can be either a blessing or a curse—especially if said films contain far-out, non-concert sequences spliced artfully into the jammed-out proceedings. The Song Remains the Same has fantasy sequences that are mostly overbearing—think rock gods and dark superheroes—and distract from the Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden experience. Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii is a little better. The wacky studio-cafeteria footage was added when the director feared the film’s brief run time (originally one hour) would be a turn-off. Still it’s mordantly funny, and we get to see the Floyd in the flesh, all human and shit. Metallica gives this formula a shot with Metallica Through the Never, a cinematic work that combines concert footage with a surreal narrative. It’s all meta, dude; the story concerns a Metallica roadie whose involvement with the aforementioned headbanging performance leads him on a trip into destiny. Think “the hero’s journey” but with “Master of Puppets” blaring in the background. While the story is ponderous and contrived, the show is magnificent. Twenty-four cameras were used to record this stunning live session. It’s good watching, but keep a finger on the fast-forward button.