Here is Part 3. After I wrote this I realized most of the films are about punk. I guess punk makes better doc material than jazz or soft rock. If I am not aware of, or forgetting any great music documentaries- feel free to post something in the comments section.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
A riveting portrait of insanity, DIY ethic, and the life of an artist. Daniel Johnston has been an underground icon for 20 years. His story is inspiring, sad, and often times very funny. He started out making films, comics, and music in his bedroom. He moved to Austin and worked at McDonalds while he went all over town playing his classic tape Hi, How Are You? to anyone who would listen. He went to a Butthole Surfers concert (who were in their psychedelic prime- see the concert film Blind Eye Sees All) and got dosed on LSD. As it usually happens when mentally imbalanced people trip, this led to him getting even crazier. There is some priceless footage of him having free association revelations while hanging out with Gibby Haynes. Eventually he gained popularity for his beautiful songwriting and even got mildly famous when Kurt Cobain wore a Hi, How Are You? T-shirt all over the world. This film is so incredible because Daniel obsessively recorded his life. Most the major events discussed here are captured on video or cassette. When Daniel gets caught drawing hundreds of Jesus fish all over the statue of liberty, he records the cop yelling at him with a handheld recorder. When he starts preaching in tears about Jesus during an in store performance in NYC- we see it all. One of my favorite parts of the film comes in the beginning. We see footage Daniel shot of his long lost love, Laurie, and he narrates some beautiful poetic memories over it. The extras are great- we see him re-united with Laurie and we see his reaction to watching the film at the premier. Definitely one of the better documentaries I have seen.
Westway to the World
The story of The Clash, as told by them. The film is mostly a series of intimate interviews with all four members with little live clips thrown in. Some complain about this format for a documentary about them but I found their stories so engaging I didn’t care about the lack of music. The Clash came from nothing, went all the way to the top, then the drummer got all fucked up on heroin and ruined it. The drummer, Topper, is in obvious distress over this and he looks 20 years older than he is, due to drugs. Paul Simonon, on the other hand, might be the coolest dude ever. He brought the heavy reggae influence to the band. He tells a memorable story about going to Jamaica, or the “promised land” as he calls it, and trying to record in Studio One. The entire film rides on the incredible story telling abilities of the group. I much prefer this to the recently released story of Joe Strummers life- The Future is Unwritten (reviewed elsewhere on this site). And as another reviewer put it: “For anyone ragging on this rockumentary...just thank Christ the film makers didn't include some cheesy interview footage with the insufferably pompous Bono giving his blessing to The Clash.”
The Filth and the Fury
The best film about punk ever made. It really paints a picture of punk rock as a social movement and a Cultural Revolution. The filmmaker, Julien Temple, gets deep into the motivations and reasons why punk happened in late 70’s London. The film focuses on the movements first major band- the Sex Pistols. The legendary footage of them misbehaving on TV and performing in seedy clubs is all here. Bands today are just so Goddamn boring compared to these guys. In Jr high my hero was Sid Vicious. My buddy Tim got arrested for spray-painting SID LIVES on a statue near school. Anyway, Temple paints a really nice portrait of him here and we see what he was really like- outside of all the stories about him. Even if you're no into punk or the Sex Pistols, this is a fascinating story of rebellious youth that changed the world.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years
The bands aren’t as cool as part one and the music isn’t as good, but this film is a bit more entertaining. The metal heads in this are just classic. Part one was a pretty serious film about Los Angeles punk rock. It had interviews and footage with Germs, Black Flag, etc.. Part two was filmed at the height of metal mania. You have to remember in the 80’s hair metal ruled Hollywood. All the shops on the blvd catered to rockers and there were headbangers everywhere you looked. In the film we get a little bit of each style of metal: Glam with LA Guns and Faster Pussycat, hard rock with Aerosmith and Ozzy, and strait ahead metal with Megadeath. There are also interviews with people that weren't famous yet but are absolutely convinced they will be one day. There is some great footage of groupies too. I first saw this when it aired on MTV in the late 80’s around the time I actually listened to this music. It was on instead of Headbangers Ball one night. There are lots of other movies about metal to check out. The creative process and egos of Metallica are explored in Some Kind of Monster. There was an excellent overview of metal that came out recently called Metal: A Headbangers Journey. Also the cult classic Heavy Metal Parking Lot is pretty rad. Unfortunately, Decline is not on DVD yet so you may have to catch it on cable or break out your VCR.
The Last Waltz
This is more a concert film than a documentary; I’ll include it here because the behind the scenes footage is so classic. Martin Scorsese directs the last concert, at the time- 1976, of The Band. They are in excellent shape and give an outstanding performance. Levon Helm has one of the greatest voices ever and him singing The Night They Drove Old Dixie down is downright phenomenal. Many guests come out and do their thing including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. Legend has it Dylan would only play if the cameras were turned off. Since Dylan hadn’t performed much in public for a while and Dylan-worshipping was at its peak, Scorsese let the cameras roll against his wishes. Thank God he did. The backstage antics are amazing. Apparently there was a cocaine room with hundreds of plastic noses taped to the wall and sniffing noises playing on a recording. There are tons of great interviews, my favorite being with the keyboard/singer Richard Manuel. He is hysterically out-there and talking about bands called Chocolate Subway and Marshmallow Overcoat. He seems like a real cool cat, it was shocking to learn he hung himself a few years later.
Hated: G.G.Allin and the Murder Junkies
G.G. Allen is a legend. Born Jesus Christ Allen to abusive and crazy parents, he is known as the most extreme front man in punk history. Violence, shit, and rape all played a part in this wild mans performances. The film tracks his disastrous upbringing to his death by heroin in 1991. This is the one and only film about him. The guy that made it went on to direct big name Hollywood comedies. The film includes clips from his legendary appearances on the Jane Whitney Show and Jerry Springer. He brings his groupies with him who are so messed up it’s unbelievable. He says one of his favorite pastimes is having them piss in his mouth before he goes to sleep. When Tim and I were in high school the depravity of this dude fascinated us. We almost had a chance to see him perform on a bill with Reverend Budgreen (known for throwing joints out into the audience) but the club was 21 and over so we couldn’t get in. We had VHS tapes of his shows and spoken word performances and a bunch of 7”s. I remember the liner notes of one told a story of him grabbing a woman from the audience by the hair and raping her on stage. This may be folklore but if it happened that is real fucked up. Sometimes I felt bad buying this freaks records. Like the film, I in no way condone this mans behavior. He always said he would mark "the end of punk rock" by killing himself on stage on Halloween. But each year he was in jail when the time came around. Too bad, that would have been kind of cool.