10. "Young@Heart" (2008)
The gimmicky premise seems corny enough: a documentary that follows a group of senior citizens who sing contemporary and classic pop and rock songs. But the film by Stephen Walker and Sally George is anything but a novelty. "Young@Heart" is a moving portrait about the power of music to change lives and bring people together. Leading us from rehearsals to a live theater performance, Walker and George capture the joy and frustrations as the group grapple through rhythmically challenging and unfamiliar tunes by The Clash, Talking Heads and James Brown. Even the steeliest of hearts will be moved when the group visits a prison to sing for the inmates, or when Fred Knittle, who has trouble breathing, powers through a version of Coldplay's "Fix You" with more emotion than Chris Martin will ever give the track.
9."Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten" (2007)
The answer to every "who's the greatest?" question in music history is quite simple. Who's better, The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? The Clash. Tupac or Biggie? The Clash. Mozart or Salieri? The Clash. Sadly the band's great frontman Joe Strummer was lost in 2002, but documentarian Julien Temple, paid tribute to his old friend with his 2007 film "The Future is Unwritten." Mixing talking heads — folks like Bono and Johnny Depp — with an extraordinary collection of archive footage featuring early performances from the musician at London squat parties, the project was mostly filmed at campfire parties thrown to honor Strummer, made up of friends, bandmates and ex-lovers. You come away with an even greater appreciation of Strummer and his work, but the film is never a hagiography; Temple doesn’t shy away from the darker side of Strummer’s character.
8. "Standing In the Shadow of Motown" (2002)
Motown; the record label so great that it became the byword for an entire genre. But, not so good at giving credit where it was due - The Funk Brothers, the house-band who played on hundreds of Motown records, weren’t credited by founder Berry Gordy until 1970, despite over a decade of outstanding work. Paul Justman’s excellent film attempts to address this injustice, by reuniting the surviving funk brothers, and proving that they were so much more than session musicians - they were the beating heart at the center of some of the greatest records of the 20th century and they played on more number one hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys combined. Their version of “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” adding each instrument one-by-one, is, quite frankly, astounding. Less successful are the clips from a reunion concert in Detroit in 2000, due to the low caliber of the modern artists teamed with the Funk Brothers (Ben Harper? Really?) but it’s a rare misstep for an otherwise terrific film.
7. "Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster" (2004)
It turns out, the world's biggest heavy metal band — supposedly a masculine and hard-bitten bunch — aren't so tough. Singer James Hetfield becomes sober, and the emotional structure of the band collapses; the group has to come to Jesus with a therapist to work through their issues and see if they can still remain a unit. This is not the Metallica documentary fans were hoping for (and some even felt it hurt their reputation), but this is exactly why it's compelling. Doubly interesting in retrospect as it chronicles the internal-band strife and issues surrounding the making of their eighth and most widely reviled record, St. Anger (which still sounds like a clattering and ill-conceived monstrosity, who wants a time capsule reminder of that thing? No wonder they hated each other). The absorbing film features many things you wouldn't think you'd see in a Metallica film: Dave Mustaine from Megadeth shedding tears when discussing his ousting from the band several years back and the revelation that an Elvish gnome is actually the mastermind behind the band (drummer Lars Ulrich's father who apparently is some kind of spiritual guide/ thumbs-up, thumbs-down musical approver).
6,"Daniel Johnson: The Devil And Daniel Johnson" (2006)
This exploration into the rise and fall of cult singer-songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston is a harrowing, fascinating look into the psyche of a person whose debilitating mental illness is also inextricably tied to his prolific output of music and art. His stripped-down, heartbreaking pop genius garnered him a cult following in Austin, TX, and some famous fans to boot (Kurt Cobain often sported Johnston’s tee, he's been covered often by folks like Beck, The Flaming Lips, TV on The Radio, etc.), but his erratic behavior and mental illness prevented him from ever gaining mainstream status, and the musician now lives at home with his parents, still producing fantastical drawings and beautiful songs. Director Jeff Feurezeig weaves together home movies and audio recordings from Johnston’s life with interviews and artifacts from his family, and musicians and artists close to him, to create a vivid, humanizing portrait of one man’s struggle to balance his own sanity and life with the demons (both creative and destructive) that do battle in his mind.
5. "Scott Walker: 30 Century Man" (2008)
A portrait of an artist following an unusual muse throughout a career that has lasted 5 decades, “Scott Walker: 30th Century Man” gives us the typical career spanning details: Young American singer joins pop group, moves to London, grows out his hair, enjoying hit after hit, playing to hysterical mobs of hormonal teenage girls. Singer has mental breakdown, leaves group, only to emerge as a solo star with a string of increasingly brilliant and strange solo albums before falling into cultish obscurity. David Bowie, Brian Eno, Radiohead, and Jarvis Cocker were all evidently taking notes. Quite an interesting story into an esoteric artist appreciated by few, but remains elusive to all. The real kicker is getting a look inside the reclusive artist’s process. Director Stephen Kijak follows Walker into the studio as he records 2006’s The Drift, a horrific operatic masterpiece highlighted by pig carcass percussion and, above it all, that incomparable baritone voice.
4. "DiG!" (2004)
The sound of Ondi Timoner's “DiG!” is the juxtaposition of one band with its nose to the grindstone and one band that was perpetually coming off the rails. Neither band has inculcated a particularly durable musical legacy, but both the indie, new-wave rockers, The Dandy Warhols and neo-psychedelic garage-folkers, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, seemed on the verge of greatness, especially in the context of the film which functions as a de facto “Greatest Hits” for both bands — one run by a narcissistic yet charismatic pretty boy (Courtney Taylor-Taylor), the other led by a raving, self-destructive genius (aggrandizing asshole Anton Newcombe). The soundtrack is a stunning snapshot of deep-seated friendship and rivalry; two artists who seemed primed to explode, and though neither did, you might believe otherwise after listening.
3. "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" (2002)
It’s hard to believe, when you watch the black-and-white footage of Wilco laboring over what would become the landmark album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, that this band was on the cusp of success. They look more like bickering artists on the brink of destruction (though it could be argued either way, depending on your view of Jay Bennett’s role, who sadly passed away earlier this year). The implications of the album that emerged from the tension captured in this poignant film are certainly arguable. Whether this was the beginning of a new period for an obviously talented band or the dramatic swan song for the truest incarnation of that band, the film loses no potency. Sam Jones skillfully documented the often excruciating, but more often beautiful, birth pains of an important musical document. Also, someone must one-day hire Sam Jones to make another movie; this documentary being more than enough evidence of his unobtrusive filmmaking talents.
2. "Anvil! The Story Of Anvil" (2009)
An uplifting, but never corny documentary about the under-appreciated and underachieving Canadian heavy metal icons, Anvil — a real-life Spinal Tap-esque band — who somehow missed the boat on the late-80s thrash scene (Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, etc., who all give effusive testimonials) that their bone-crunching sound helped spawn. The story, lovingly, but unsparingly documented by former teenage Anvil roadie Sacha Gervasi (who wrote Spielberg's "The Terminal"), these lovable buffoons will make you pump devil horns in the sky, cringe with embarrassment, and laugh and weep in celebration. The doc is a fantastic look at the triumph of perseverance and the power of brotherhood. Also, it was snubbed by the Oscars this year, but recently won two prizes, including the top Best Documentary award, at the prestigious, International Documentary Association awards.
1. "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" (2005)
Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There" creatively explained to civilians (i.e., non-Dylan-heads) how elusive and chameleon-like Bob Dylan is as a person and artist, and while yes, Dylan has done several interviews in his life, Martin Scorsese coaxing the legend to not only participate in a documentary about himself, but to openly reflect on his past is a major achievement that musicologists the world round are still thanking him for. An intriguing and illuminating look into the period of Dylan's arrival in New York in January 1961 all the way through to his "retirement" from touring, following his famous motorcycle accident in July 1966, 'No Direction' will engross even the most skeptical (there's still a faction of people out there that "don't get" Dylan). Ultimately, as much as Zimmy reveals (and of course contradicts from past interviews), the documentary fittingly peels back layers, while letting the mystery remain; never solving the alluring enigma that is one of the 20th century's great artists.
We told ourselves 10 picks only, but the films we still regard very highly include, Tim Irwin's tale of the '80s punk rockers, The Minutemen in "We Jam Econo," filmmaker Matt Wolf's portrait of deceased avante garde disco artist Arthur Russell in "Wild Combination," director Paul Rachman's look at punk in the Regan Years, "American Hardcore," Grant Gee's definitive chronicle of "Joy Division," and Margaret Brown's examination of the troubled and unheralded country folk artist, Townes Van Sant in "Be Here To Love Me" (consider that our top 15 if you like).
Other films we'd like to mention include Julien Temple's 2000 rockumentary about iconic punk-rockers the Sex Pistols, "The Filth and the Fury," "Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man," "Wu: The Story of The Wu-Tang Clan," "You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson," "Love Story," the Arthur Kane film, "New York Doll," "Jandek on Cornwood," "End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones," "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" and Peter Bogdanovich's "Runnin' Down A Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers."
- Jace Brittain, Hunter McClamrock, Katie Walsh, Oly Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth & RP