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Rock Meets Hollywood: A Review of 5 Top Rockumentaries

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Don’t Look Back (1967)

Don’t Look Back is a compelling, behind-the-scenes glimpse inside Bob Dylan’s frenzied world during his three-week, six-city tour of England in the spring of 1965. The documentary takes place when the singer/songwriter was transitioning from acoustic to electric. Among the film’s highlights is the iconic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue cards clip, which many consider the first music video. Other highlights include some great concert footage and a few uncomfortable scenes of the 23-year-old Dylan verbally sparring with reporters. The film serves as a compelling snapshot of the era and invented the rock documentary as we know it. In 1998, the film was chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  The film was directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, who is widely recognized as one of the pioneers of cinéma vérité filmmaking.

DiG! (2004)

DiG! is a fascinating documentary about the rivalry/friendship between indie rock bands The Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre and their respective frontmen Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Anton Newcombe. Compiled from seven years of footage (1996-2003), the film follows the two bands as they make their ambitious bids to revolutionize the music industry. Filmmaker Ondi Timoner does a remarkable job of capturing these two bands in their most raw and candid moments through countless interviews, concert clips, road segments, as well as footage of the bands creating in the studio. Ondi nicely contrasts the career trajectories of the two bands. While the Dandy Warhols make a careful, steady climb towards success, the Brian Jonestown Massacre slowly implodes. The band crumbles under the unstable leadership of the gifted but volatile, drug-addicted Newcombe. DiG! is also an eye-opening commentary on art versus commerce in the recording industry. The film earned Timoner the Jury Prize for best director at the BendFilm festival in 2004. The film also won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

Stop Making Sense is an exhilarating concert film featuring influential new wave band Talking Heads. The film was directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) and was shot over three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre in 1983. Stop Making Sense shows what an amazing live band Talking Heads were back in the day. The band’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it looks like they’re genuinely having a blast. Demme wisely kept the focus on the band’s performance. There are no interviews or behind-the-scenes footage. It all happens up on the stage. Some of the film’s highlights include a roof-raising performance of “Burning Down the House” and a luminous, stripped-down reading of “Heaven.” The film earned Demme the Grand Prix Award at the Ghent International Film Festival in 1985, and it also won Best Documentary at the National Society of Film Critics Awards that same year.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Gimme Shelter is the harrowing account of the infamous Altamont concert that ended in chaos and tragedy. The concert was held at the Altamont Speedway in northern California on December 6, 1969. The free concert was headlined by the Rolling Stones and featured the bands Jefferson Airplane, Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The concert was a disaster from the start. Concert organizers made a huge error in judgment by hiring outlaw biker gang the Hell’s Angels to police the event. The concert drew 300,000 people, many of whom were stoned on LSD or Amphetamines.

The Hell’s Angels were paid $500 in beer. The boozed-up bikers attended to their security duties by beating unruly concertgoers with weighted pool cues. The violence continued to escalate and peaked with the death of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, who was stabbed several times during a scuffle with some of the Hell’s Angels. Altamont is considered the dark flipside of Woodstock and symbolically signaled the end of the peace-loving hippie era, which had reached its pinnacle at Woodstock just three and a half months earlier. The documentary was directed by filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. And even amid all the chaos, they managed to capture some great performance footage.

It Might Get Loud (2008)

It Might Get Loud is filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s absorbing exploration of the history of the electric guitar and its massive influence on popular culture. The documentary features interviews with celebrated axmen Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes). The three guitarists share stories of their musical journeys, discuss their influences, engage in a few impromptu jam sessions, and reflect on how music and the electric guitar have impacted their lives.

Guggenheim does a great job of intercutting archival footage with the interviews. Some of the footage includes the musicians at very early stages in their careers. The film also features some excellent clips of music pioneers such as Reverend Gary Davis and Lonnie Donegan. It Might Get Loud opened to mostly positive reviews and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2009 Satellite Awards. Guggenheim also wrote and directed the critically acclaimed documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010).

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