I Like To Watch (Instantly): Music Docs

A Summer Sound Orgy

August March
4 min read
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This summer, the teevee was done for at mi chante. I just couldn’t sit through another baseball game. I’ve watched The Fifth Element, The Princess Bride and Prometheus a hundred thousand times—each. Don’t get me started on reality shows. I got into “Naked and Afraid” for a while, but got uncomfortable with all the frog-eating and gaunt expressions.

I put the remote down, headed to the nearest computer terminal and began streaming music documentaries. So far it’s been pretty rewarding. With Netflix there are a heap of decent rock docs (and related genres) available
al instante. Here’s some of what I’ve run into so far this summer.

David Lynch made a film titled
Duran Duran: Unstaged (2010, Screenvision). The guy who successfully visualized the quasi-religious appearance of the Spacing Guild at Emperor Shaddam IV’s court also made a movie about dudes who sang about a rocker chick named after the Rio Grande. Fascinating. At times visually austere and at others florid, the film puts a fine focus on the work of Simon Le Bon and company. Parts are almost academic in tone. The in-studio footage is particularly interesting on that account. The Lynchian dynamics are predictably surreal, providing a vivid accompaniment. The film works because stylistic choices don’t overwhelm, allowing a definitive look at the musical lives of the forever cat-like chaps who make up Duran Duran.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie had an arch teevee show in the before time. Afterwards, Laurie transformed himself—with the help of several Vicodin, one supposes—into Dr. Gregory House. Fry did some serious acting too, channeling Oscar Wilde, portraying a noble if wan rebel in the movie
V for Vendetta and even subbing for Vivian Stanshall at the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band reunion concert. Patrick McGrady’s documentary, Wagner and Me (2010, BBC), tells about the great musical modernist’s appropriation by and association with the evil Nazis and how such ignited Fry’s sense of conflict and curiosity. He knows Richard Wagner fucking rocks, yet must contend with the historical and cultural consequences such epiphanies require. Highly recommended, even if you detest Wagner.

Harry Nilsson seemed comfortable traveling on the edge of music and popular cultures. His contributions to both are difficult to quantify; they are vast and diffuse. Yet a few years after his death, some still ask who he was.
Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him) (2010, Lorber Films) answers the question with edgy storytelling, frank interviews and the musical output of one of America’s most tragically rocked-out composers. Nilsson’s early work at RCA is glossed over; his main collaborator, George Tipton, is unaccountably absent from the proceedings. Unflinching and poignant in narrative and camera style—with Nilsson’s great tunes thrown in almost casually—John Scheinfeld’s long view of Harry’s place in the rock pantheon is both celebratory and sad.

I fancy the same sort of soft-to-loud, ordered-to-chaotic dynamic favored by folks of my generation. It’s all about the song order and compositional style evident on
Nevermind, I reckon. With that conceit in mind, I finished off my weekly watching with Under the Electric Sky: Electric Daisy Carnival 2013 (2014, Focus Features). This really is a film about another world, a bright joyous place where technology and carnality intertwine through musical expression. In Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz’ otherworldly vision, EDM has already conquered all. In conjunction with nonstop pulsation, oscillation and rhythms imbued with deeply primitive undertones, the festival is portrayed as part of the coming age. An experience best undertaken in a dark room with a huge multimedia A/V system, the whole enchilada’s filled with provocative portrayals of beautiful human beings too. And that beats heck outta hearing about Nilsson trolling LA with a sodden and sullen John Lennon or listening to “Flight of the Valkyries”, while its cultural controversies are brought to the light.
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