The 18 Best Rockumentaries of ALL TIME
After paying an exorbitant fee on Ticketmaster just to print your tickets out (convenient and immediate), you still have to scour for parking, only to wait in line behind whatever flannel print happens to be popular at the moment, to stand in another line to show your I.D. for foamy, overpriced draft beer in a plastic cup. After securing that perfect spot, to the left of the guy in the stovepipe hat and respectfully buffered from the fledgling larva of a mosh pit.
The band lumbers onstage.
They rush through eight songs, including that one that your girlfriend recognizes, “I know this! I didn’t know these guys sang this! I like this song.”
Through the miracle of home DVD, you can now enjoy your favorite bands in the coolest of dive bars, “Your Couch”. These magical discs carry backstage interviews, a biography, and occasionally a sound check. These are rockumentaries. And they rock. Enjoy them at your leisure at home, where the bathroom isn’t blanketed with an inch of urine.
18. Wattstax (1973) “A soulful expression of the Black experience,” comments Richard Pryor in the first of many personal interludes on this disc. Shot at the Los Angeles Convention, the ’72 Wattstax Music Festival commemorated the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots. Funk, Soul, Blues, Gospel, or R&B, the tickets were a buck and was the “African-American answer to Woodstock”. The Bar-Kays get my vote for “Best Band Wardrobe Ever.” Check it out to remind you that Blues is where Rock came from.
17. The Decline of Western Civilization Pt. II: The Metal Years (1988) The second installment of director Penelope Spheeris rock-u-trilogy explores the glam-metal scene of Los Angeles in the mid 80s. We are talking teased hair, tight pants, jangly jewelry, and plenty of eye shadow. And that’s just the guys! This is an era of excess: sleazy chicks, monster riffs, and doped-up dudes. Watch this film for an interview with Ozzy where he’s cooking Breakfast and actually speaking coherently.
16. D.O.A. (1980) Chronicling the formative years of punk, this one is a bit hard to come by. Much like a shower is hard to come by for anyone in this film. Containing mostly footage of the Sex Pistols (their only North American tour before disbanding), this is a grimy, low-budget glimpse at the turning tide of the punk movement. And that low budget reality is the exact reason why it’s worth watching.
15. Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2008) From VICE, this documentary follows Acrassicauda, an Iraqi heavy metal band in the middle of “the shit”. Homeboys had their practice space hit with a SCUD missile. These guys aren’t playing to get laid. They are playing to get out of the warzone. Then get laid. Watch this doc because it’s just an incredible story.
14. American Hardcore- 2006 The real stand out quality of American Hardcore is the photography. And the fact that a lot of the founding members of the movement are still breathing. The film takes you through the formative years of the Hardcore scene, interviewing big names like Rollins, Flea, and Moby as well as the obscure yet iconic likes of Keith Morris and Brian Baker. Watch it to get educated.
13. Funky Monks (1992) The Red Hot Chili Peppers hole up in Houdini’s haunted mansion with the world’s biggest vegan, Rick Rubin, to record Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik. A penetrating look into the lives of the guys who once wore socks on their dorks. This clip shows a drum take from the song Breaking The Girl. Not since Sanford & Son has playing with trash worked so well. See if to remind you that dudes like Rick Rubin are what make Rock possible.
12. Stop Making Sense (1984) This live performance by the Talking Heads, directed by the late Jonathan Demme*, is a no-frills affair. You soon realize that without said “gimmicks”, the performance speaks for itself. It’s also more of a conceptual concert movie than a rockumentary. There are no lasers, smoke machines, or quick cuts to bare breasts (unfortunately). Check it out to remind you how utterly acceptable it was to be a weirdo in the 80’s.
*Jonathan Demme has recently come back from the dead. He is a zombie.
11. End Of The Century: The Story of The Ramones (2004) This is the definitive DVD of punk band The Ramones. Set over 22 years, the mop-topped rockers go from playing two-minute songs at CBGB’s to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This clip is of Dee Dee Ramone’s brief venture into hip-hop. Classic. Hey! Oh! Let’s Go! (-to-the-video-store-and-learn-about-the-shirt-I-just-bought). Watch it so when you see people with the shirt on, you can know the story.
10. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007) Tom Petty has always reminded me of Martina Navratilova. This 2-disc set covers early Petty, the history of the Heartbreakers, interviews with the likes of Stevie Nicks, Dave Grohl, and Rick Rubin, leading to their 30th anniversary concert in Gainesville. Culture yourself with this four-hour collection. Because nobody wants to hear about the four hours you spent playing Medal of Honor. Also worth watching so you can understand where your parents are coming from.
9. DIG! (2004) This film compiles seven years of footage following two bands-- The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, as they attempt to take over the music industry. BJM front man Anton Newcombe is an egomaniacal, wacky-costume wearing, 80-instrument playing, band-sabotaging, audience-kicking train wreck – and a pleasure to watch. The Dandy Warhols’ front man Courtney Taylor wears makeup and must navigate the treacherous road of dealing with major record companies. Watch it to remind you just how crazy the music industry really is.
8. Instrument- 10 Years With The Band Fugazi (2001) If you know punk and Hardcore, you know Fugazi. You also know that the most mainstream they have ever gotten is email forwards falsely reporting the death of lead singer Ian MacKaye. Watch this doc to see how dedicated these guys are, and for a scene where MacKaye calls a punch-happy kid an “Ice Cream Eating Motherfucker.” It’s something I call my friends at least once a week.
7. The Fearless Freaks (2005) This disc covers the formation of Oklahoma psych-rockers The Flaming Lips. Maybe dropping all that acid wasn’t such a bad idea. Every band (except The Strokes) had shitty day jobs. In this clip, front man Wayne Coyne re-enacts being held up while working at Long John Silver’s. Heads up to Unsolved Mysteries: cast cute Vietnamese children for your re-enactments. Watch it because it will keep you from ever shooting heroin, or moving to Oklahoma City.
6. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2002) Wilco records their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Idiots at the record label deem it “not poppy” enough. Album is released for free online and later goes on to sell over 500,000 copies and have music critics creaming in their jeans. This is that story. Fred Armisen (SNL) is in it too. See it for the story.
5. The Last Waltz (1978) Martin Scorsese helmed this enthralling look into the final performance of folk group, The Band. What they lack in coming up with cool band names (or is it the coolest band name?), they make up for with killer on-stage collaborations, including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and more. See it because it’s Martin Scorsese, and way better than the Oldguyapalloza that was his recent Shine A Light.
4. Some Kind of Monster (2004) Originally made to chronicle the recording of Metallica’s St. Anger, this disc explores what happens when “metal group” meets “group therapy”. Drummer Lars Ulrich has a sit-down with former Metallica guitarist, Dave Mustaine and the “talk it out” (not metal). Guitarist Kirk Hammett is allowed to suggest a lyric. He comes up with, “my life-style is my death-style.” See it because it shows you the totally damaging effects that giant piles of money can have on your development into adulthood. And also, it’s just a great fucking movie— think Step Brother’s but for real.
3. Th Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) Meet Daniel Johnston. He writes songs and records them on a crappy boom box. He does his own artwork and hands out these cassettes. He was institutionalized when he thought he was possessed by the devil and diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis and his songs are incredible. His story is unbelievable, particularly the part about going flying with his pilot father, removing the keys from the ignition while airborne, and tossing them out the window. Guess what happened? I’ll give you a hit—it rhymes with ‘clane prash.’ See it to remind you of the overlap of genius and insanity.
2. Gimmie Shelter (1970) I went to a Rolling Stones concert when I was in 9th grade. My friend’s dad took us. He knew all of the songs. I thought it was one of the lamest things ever. It wasn’t until college that I appreciated The Stones and realized that back in the day, they were just fucking awesome, and really set the stage for every band that followed. Watching Gimmie Shelter helped me reach this understanding. Watch it to see the result of one of the biggest fails in concert history: agreeing to let the Hells Angels run security. Lets just say things got ‘stabby.’
1. Don’t Look Back (1967) Filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker is one of the most influential documentarians of all time. He established a style that is still used to this day. He avoided structured interviews and captured intimate moments using handheld camera work while maintaining a fly-on-the-wall presence. As commonplace as it is today, it was a big deal when he followed Bob Dylan around for his 1965 tour in England. Although it doesn’t have the flash of other docs on this list, it takes the number one spot for being THE original. Watch it to appreciate the genera just a little more.
By Buck Russel