They Shoot Musicians, Don’t They?

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.


  1. damian · March 8, 2011

    “Fearless Freaks” – five stars in my book – i’m watching it right now as i write this for the n-th time. The Flaming Lips are truly one of the most creative and underrated bands of the century along with Guided By Voices and the Minutemen. Here are some other great music doc’s to check out if you liked “Fearless Freaks”

    “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” – Daniel Johnston
    “We Jam Econo” – The Minutemen
    “Loud Quiet Loud” – The Pixies

    On a bit of a different note I also enjoyed
    “The Power of Song” – Pete Seeger
    “Just An American Boy” – Steve Earle
    “The Complete Earl Scruggs” – Earl Scruggs
    for anyone who’s into bluegrass/roots/folk

  2. Tim Lehnerer · March 8, 2011

    You might want to take a look at “Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story” as well; it’s a documentary about musicians who rook innocent people into paying $200 to have a “professional band” record their poetry as pop songs, no matter how disjointed or uncommercial the source material is. Also, there’s a winningly bashful guy named Caglar Juan Singletary who designed his own martial art and wrote a completely heartfelt song about having a crush on Annie Oakley. Absolutely nothing else like it in the world.

  3. damian · March 8, 2011

    Also, as far as Music doc’s/films go…

    *”All Tomorrow’s Parties” – Brilliant little film helmed by Vincent Moon, mainly composed of fan footage of the ATP festival – includes amazing performances by some of the greatest bands/artists on the planet i.e. Daniel Johnston, Lightning Bolt, The Gossip, Grizzly Bear, The Boredoms, Battles, Animal Collective, Les Savy Fav, The Dirty Three, Shellac etc…

    *Also, I know it’s cliche but “The Last Waltz” (The Band) – it’s been hailed as the greatest music film of all time but as I watch it here tonight again for the nth time I realize that the acclaim may be true base solely on Richard Manuel’s facial expressions and answers to the interview questions….

  4. damian · March 8, 2011

    …and the scene where Levon Helm lights a match for his cigarette, lights Robbie Robertson’s cigarette first, has a conversation with the interviewer, then lights his cigarette just before the match burns down to his fingers all the while without once looking at the match….

  5. damian · March 8, 2011

    alright…forget everything you’ve ever watched….buy Guided By Voices live at Austin City Limits….if you need proof that this is the best music DVD ever fast forward to the encore…where a 250 pound man jumps on Bob Pollard like a baby koala…and then Robert during mid microphone twirl inadvertently hits his guitarist on the head without ever realizing what has happened…the guitarist drops to his knees in the crowd and a fan lights up a cigarette for him….despite the fact that the band probably consumed more beer that night than province consumes in one day (which is more than some small countries consume in a year) they still manage to put on a truly amazing show….we should all aspire to having Robert Pollards liver….