Hollywood has always found ways to cash in on the powerful iconography and cultural weight of musicians and the music industry. From Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock to Sinatra in The Man With The Golden Arm, Hollywood has long used musical star power to sell cinema tickets. Before the digital revolution musicians could stay hidden from the public eye if they pleased. This is why it was so thrilling for movie-goers to see their favourite singers acting on screen, let alone watching a documentary following their everyday lives.
The famously reclusive Bob Dylan was laid bare in DA Pennebaker’s intrusive Cinéma vérité benchmark ‘Don’t Look Back,’ a fly on the wall doc which followed Dylan through hotel rooms and concert halls during his 1965 English tour. DA Pennebaker put Dylan firmly in control, taking a back seat and acting as an impartial, constant observer.
This style of filmmaking gives the artist the power to construct their own narrative and project an image or persona. Nevertheless, the balance in fly on the wall music documentaries can be shifted by an ingenuously uninhibited artist. In the legendary Beatles documentary Let It Be, the Fab Four’s carefully constructed image as seen in A Hard Day’s Night was shattered when the band were seen bickering and squabbling in the studio, just months from breaking up. As many victims of ‘reality’ TV editing can attest, it’s not surprising that bands aren’t always happy with the final cut.
The Clash slated the semi-fictional punk flick Rude Boy. Only begrudgingly taking part due to contractual agreements. While the best ever ‘stroppy band’ documentary is surely Meeting People Is Easy, the Radiohead film where it seems as though the trailing cameras have burdened the band’s every exertion with ten pounds of steel. The Sex Pistols famously disowned the Malcolm McClaren fuelled documentary ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle,’ which they labelled as farcical and unrepresentative. Eventually, the Pistols re-recruited director Julien Temple for their counter attack ‘The Filth And The Fury.’ A fantastic film in which the band exerted more control over the documentation of their career and fiercely express their distaste for their ex manager.
In any genre of documentary the treatment of sensitive or personal thematic content and the perceived exploitation of vulnerable subjects can receive outsize scrutiny. Bruce Weber fell under some criticism for his Oscar-nominated Let’s Get Lost, which chronicled the life and decline of visionary jazz artist Chet Baker. Weber explored Baker’s drug addiction and private life intimately and painstakingly, leaving little to the imagination. And while the film has received widespread praise, one wanders what Chet Baker himself would think about the film as a representation of his life and career, with its greater focus on his failed romantic conquests and addiction than his music.
Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil & Daniel Johnston, which focuses on indie icon Daniel Johnston and his battle with mental illness, also uncomfortably played with the balance of power. While Johnston participated fully in the filming and promotion of the documentary, there is an uneasy tone to the film and the relationship between subject and filmmaker that some have said verges on exploitative.
The most interesting recent display of distorted power roles in a music documentary came in the form of Awesome, I Fucking Shot That! The film is a document of a Beastie Boys gig at New York’s Madison Square Gardens, composed entirely of handheld footage taken by an army of audience members. The Beastie Boys handed over full control to their fans, and Awesome, I Fucking Shot That! is one of the few music docs where the filmmaker and the audience are one and the same.
So much has changed since Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. The boundaries and uncodified restrictions placed on documentary filmmakers have been all but eliminated. This year, cinema goers have been treated to an array of great music films including the joyful James Brown celebration Get On Up, the long awaited Nas movie Time Is Illmatic and Alex Gibney’s Fela Kuti study Finding Fela.
While the balance of power in the music doc may be more unsteady than ever, there’s no denying that musicians and artists continue to serve as one of the most bountiful subjects for documentary filmmakers.