Music documentaries are their own kind of cinematic comfort food—or, more fittingly, a comfort cocktail. Music is medicine in any circumstance, but there’s something extra soothing about being invited in, especially when we can’t go out. Whether it’s a concert film, an intimate look at the birth of an album, or a deep dive into the history of a genre, I often turn to music documentaries as a balm, a source of creative inspiration, and a reminder to not be too square.
While 2020 has put paid to a lot of live music experiences, there are still plenty of music films coming down the pipe, about the synthwave, Bay Area thrash metal, the tiny but strong Vietnamese metal scene, drum and bass, an influential New York record store. It’s rare these days to get a Cocksucker Blues, though. The closest thing to Robert Frank’s suppressed, fly-on-the-wall documentary about The Rolling Stones’ debauched 1972 North American tour would be something like the recent Fyre Festival exposés, Fyre and Fyre Fraud, both of which ooze with schadenfreude.
Every now and again, insider access gives us a high-concept triumph like Mistaken for Strangers, Tom Berninger’s wildly irreverent 2013 film about his brother’s band, The National. Conversely, as with Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy (2015), public footage can do more to tell the tale than insider interviews ever could. But, generally, the price of access is usually artist approval, and rock docs in the 21st century have become sanctioned, often sanitized outings to sell an album, rebuild a reputation or launch an act.
Perhaps that is part of the comfort factor of music films at this time: the knowledge that we are arguably watching something the artists themselves are comfortable with—no nasty surprises or nip-slips. Ultimately, I think we love music movies because we simply love music, and want to know more about the ephemeral qualities of those who make it. That’s certainly why famous directors often throw themselves into music films—there’s nothing more unknowable and magical than a musician’s brain.
While he’s “no psychologist”, the attraction is as clear as day to filmmaker John Scheinfeld, who has documented musicians including John Coltrane, Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, and Herb Alpert: “Music is the universal language. It touches us emotionally, it touches us intellectually. And what comes along with that is if somebody’s music really impacts us in a significant way, we want to know more about that artist. I know that’s what interests me as a filmmaker.”
We take a deep dive into 2020’s music film offerings and write you a few prescriptions.