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Cinemascope: Music Documentaries

Feb 05, 04:31pm

In between critiquing (and trashing) all sorts of music, we also find time to watch a few films here and there. Below are reviews of five music documentaries. 
 

 

1991: THE YEAR PUNK BROKE (1992) - 9
Directed by David Markey 


 

“Tonight,” proclaims Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth vocalist/guitar-player/alternative music godfather/experimental art-rock genius, “I will defecate on stage.” Thankfully, he doesn’t quite follow through on his word – instead, The Year Punk Broke showcases Sonic Youth on tour in said year in Europe along with their sort-of-protégés Nirvana. It’s a significant, not to forget ridiculously funny, document of possibly the golden era of ’90s alt-rock, capturing the very essence of the monstrous movement. Sonic Youth and their frontman Moore are placed at the heart of the film, with electric live performances and Moore’s antics backstage and in front of the camera stealing the show for the most part. But added to that are several songs performed by Nirvana, as well as a couple of gigantic sounding ones by Dinosaur Jr. and even Babes in Toyland. The film allows its protagonists space to be themselves, and the candid bits make for great visceral viewing – Moore sipping an exploding beer can backstage as Nirvana play on, Kim Gordon applying make-up to Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain, even Cobain’s iconic dive into Grohl’s drumkit. Not to forget Moore’s constant bullshitting – at one point he gets into an involved discussion about frankfurters with a shop owner – making this a breezy watch. And the best part: The live renditions are not halted abruptly with ponderous cutaways and annoying voiceovers; we see the bands in question in all their glory, beginning to end. 

 

AMERICAN HARDCORE 2006) - 6
Directed by Paul Rachman

 


 

How nice. A bunch of geriatrics reminiscing about the good ol’ days when they used to destroy venues, cops, equipment, each other, and even themselves with complete disregard for anything. American Hardcore is essentially a little bookend to the heyday of hardcore punk, from the late ’70s till it fizzled out by ’85 or so. The hardcore scene consisted of a bunch of young iconoclastic punks disillusioned with American society, channelizing their rage into raw, aggressive music to reach out and connect with people. They believed in something, and were DIY to a fault, printing and folding their own records even. But they created a scene, a scene based on communication, expression and outrageously fast and angry songs, with Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains at the helm. And while it’s a little disconcerting to see these (now) old fucks sipping their wine and bordering on self-aggrandizement, their nostalgic tales – interspersed with rare footage of gigs, performances, fights and what not – are still brilliant, from Henry Rollins smacking a guy in the audience, riots breaking out at gigs, to just an overall sense of chaos and madness. Yet the music never stopped; they never stopped playing. 

 

DIG! (2004) - 8.5
Directed by Ondi Timoner


 

At several points in this very bizarre film, I had to remind myself that this was a documentary, y’know, about actual people, and not fiction in any way, that no one was acting, that nothing was staged, that Anton Newcome is actually deranged in real life. Tragically gifted and leader of ’60s revivalist experimental act Brian Jonestown Massacre (BJM), Newcombe is at the forefront of this incredible movie about his band and the Dandy Warhols, the friendship between him and Dandys’ frontman Courtney Taylor and a subsequent fallout, their contrasting fortunes with their bands, and the overall nutcase freak of nature that Newcombe really is.

There’s lots in the film that you can dwell on, each character more interesting than the previous, but the centerpiece, Newcombe, is what sticks. He’s a royal pain in the ass, a megalomaniacal asshole with a Messiah complex, a violent, self-destructive junkie, and evidently a musical genius. The one complaint about the movie is that while everyone unanimously proclaims his greatness at every step – even Courtney Taylor, who’s clearly very jealous of him – the film, created from like 1,500 hours of footage shot over seven years – doesn’t completely provide him with a platform to showcase his musical talent, cutting him off far too often for the sake of the narrative.

 

BIGGIE AND TUPAC (2002) - 6
Directed by Nick Broomfield


 

Biggie and Tupac is sort of an uneven film investigating the murders of rap/hip-hop superstars and friends-turned-bitter-rivals Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls. The film succeeds in planting a giant lump of cynicism, doubt, and suspicion in my head. I trust nobody nomore. My age of innocence died by the time the end credits rolled, and now I walk around believing people are inherently evil at heart. You see, Biggie and Tupac begins exploring the very promising matter of Tupac and Biggie’s rivalry, but subsequently turns into an investigation implicating Marion ‘Suge’ Knight, founder of Death Row Records, in the twin murders which happened over a period of six months or so.

Using an angry ex-cop’s – who has a habit of muttering “mm’kay” after every sentence, much like Mr. Mackey from South Park – assertion that the LAPD may also have been involved in the conspiracy as a starting premise, Nick Broomfield sets off on a journey to unravel the murder case, dealing with a multitude of shady characters – cops, rappers, Death Row Records execs, friends of Tupac and Biggie, lawyers, and what not – and there’s an underlying sinister atmosphere through the narrative, concluding with a flourish as Broomfield walks into the prison where Suge is serving a nine-year sentence, searches for him, and even manages to pinch an interview off him. Suge is a giant man who smokes cigars the size of my arm and walks with a cane, he’s been to jail several times, he’s a suspected gang member, and he’s scary as shit. Little wonder that the cameraman was also shitting his pants during the interview, clear from Broomfield’s narrative and the shaky and unfocused shots. Ultimately, Broomfield falls short of directly accusing Suge through the film, but it’s an entertaining and frightening exploration of one of the most intriguing incidents in hip-hop, maybe music in general, and the constant malevolence is offset only by the endearing persona of Biggie’s ma, with the final words of the film thankfully given to her.

 

HEIMA 2007) - 8
Directed by Dean DeBlois


 

I’ll be honest – as a self-confessed cannibal of similar ‘post-rock’ music, Sigur Ros is not my favourite band in the world. In fact, of late, they’ve really started to piss me off for reasons best left undisclosed, reasons which are probably quite irrational too. But those are my issues, and I’ll work them out over time. What’s undeniable is that Heima is a phenomenal watch: The band returns to Hopeland, no wait Iceland, and plays a bunch of free, unannounced shows, performing in packed halls, empty auditoriums, lunch boxes, dungeons, castles, and the vast open landscapes of Iceland, playing their trademark leafy and plush melancholia-tinged passages of sound back home.

It’s a cozy, intimate film that radiates positivity and hope – the euphoric melodies and the ethereal vocal lines comfortably aligning with the glorious panoramic locales that the band hits. It makes you smile, leaving you with a sense of anticipation and optimism, even some giddiness.

This article initially appeared in the Sept-Oct 2012 edition of Rock Street Journal.

Read part I here

Stay tuned for part III

 

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