To celebrate the launch of this year’s RPM Challenge, Adam Clarke ventured into the Batcave to watch some music documentaries. He emerged with the following advice for would-be music documentarians.
1) Broader Focus, Please.
These days a simple Google search will uncover all relevant press, YouTube clips and/or mugshots of just about any artist out there.
Instead of dwelling on one band, filmmakers should take a cue from Punk’s Not Dead and Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. These are two of the best music docs in recent years because they allow a variety of musicians to retell the history they mutually created.
2) Spare The Gimmicks
One of the worst music docs in recent memory was Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns. A.J. Schnack’s debut feature bungles an opportunity to get into the heads of They Might Be Giants frontmen John Flansburgh and John Linnell. Since both men are so uncomfortable on-camera and Schnack is too green to prod them into opening up, the film kills time by having b-list celebrities gush sycophantically about the band. Just because the voice of Mr. Burns thinks Lincoln is a great album doesn’t mean you should give a shit.
3) Be a Pal: Stab ‘Em In The Front And Film It
It’s no secret that many music docs are made by a friend of the band. After all, familiarity with your subject is the best way to catch them off guard. This is put into practice beautifully in the Flaming Lips documentary, The Fearless Freaks, wherein director Bradley Beesley refuses to shy away from the ugly side of its participants.
The suburban dystopia of Oklahoma is the poisonous centre for each of the Lips, as we see crime-ridden neighbourhoods, jailbird relatives and drummer Steve Drozd’s crippling heroin addiction in all their ugliness. Even lead singer Wayne Coyne, who’s generally portrayed as a kind of space-cadet Jesus, offers no support for Drozd or his drug-mule older brother. It’s bleak, fascinating stuff.
4) Successful Musicians ≠ Successful Documentaries
Rather than the usual success story, Anvil! The Story Of Anvil is the story of a band that simply never made it.
The film opens at the peak of their fame, as lead singer Steve Kudlow is seen parading around a stage with a vibrator. This is his greatest triumph.
Twenty years later, Kudlow and his band-mates have yet to capitalize on their early success. Between day-job drudgery and sparsely-attended gigs, the boys of Anvil work on their thirteenth album in the hopes of finally being recognized.
Anvil never loses focus on the personalities, ambitions and history of the band. Nor does the film shy away from showing us how bogus Anvil’s songs are; evoking a mixture of pity and admiration from any viewer with a heart. With its mixture of humour and pathos, The Story Of Anvil is one the greatest documentaries ever made.