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Docs That Really Rock: Music Documentaries Go Beyond the Performance

By Ron Deutsch

Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of music documentaries finding their way to both the big and small screens. Making one is in many ways not so different from making any other type of documentary, but there is something about music, and the films about it, that offer both unique challenges and rewards.

One challenge is as basic as defining what a music documentary is. One might subdivide the genre into two categories. The concert/performance film—for which Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock (1970) is the basic template—may incorporate some interstitial sequences, but it's primarily about watching a performance. On the flip side, for lack of a better term, is the documentary about something musical, be it an artist, genre, era or sub-culture. These films may take the form of a traditional historical documentary or may follow the steps of DA Pennebaker and Richard Leacock's Dont Look Back (1967), which introduced many tropes seen in such films ever since.

Director Jonathan Demme has earned renown as a master of both narrative and concert films. The latter include Stop Making Sense (1984), featuring Talking Heads, and a trio of films with singer/songwriter Neil Young. His most recent music film is an exploration into the world of Italian composer Enzo Avitabile. "I always like to make the distinction between a music documentary and a performance film," Demme says. "That's what I like to make: performance films, films based on the idea that this isn't a documentary about a musical event that happened and was attended by ticket-buying people and now we're seeing what they saw live. Which isn't to put that down because Woodstock-as an example of a documentary about a musical event-is one of the great, great music documentaries of all time. But with the Talking Heads movie and Robyn Hitchcock [Storefront Hitchcock, (1998)] and the different Neil Young films, we never show the audience. We're desperately trying to make the viewers of the film feel like this was shot for them."

Morgan Neville, who has produced over a dozen music documentaries, including his latest film, 20 Feet from Stardom, believes, "Certain people don't consider concert films as documentaries. I think you have to ask, 'Is this really a concert film with a bit of interstitial stuff, or is it really a documentary?' Certain people segregate things one way or another. There's a whole trend now of every big pop act having kind of a concert film which they stick some interstitial stuff in and call it a music documentary. I don't know how helpful labels are. Duke Ellington famously said, 'There are two kinds of music—good music and bad music.' So there are only two kinds of documentaries."

Multi-award-winning filmmaker Amber Edwards, whose work includes the PBS series Michael Feinstein's American Songbook (2010-13) and the doc Words and Music by Jerry Herman (2007), says, "One advantage of doing music documentaries as opposed to just concert or performance films is that people have different kinds of production expectations in a documentary, so you don't need to have 16 cameras and a crane and a jib. The expectations and the aesthetics are different, so you can have two or four cameras and it's still okay because you're more intimate."

Emmy-nominated filmmaker Judy Chaikin—whose most recent documentary, The Girls in the Band, tells the stories of the forgotten women of jazz—notes that regardless of the type, "Making music documentaries is a heck of a lot more fun than any other. In the editing room, you're dancing around all the time. You're listening to music. What could be better? The music went a long way towards making that grueling eight years of working on this film really doable."

Maybe the biggest question—one not always considered when first setting out to make a music film—is: Who is your audience? Bob Smeaton has directed documentaries on musicians ranging from the Beatles to the Spice Girls, as well as several films on Jimi Hendrix, including Hear My Train a Comin' (2013), which aired on PBS' American Masters series. "You've got to ask, 'Who are you making this for?' I've made a bunch of Hendrix films in the past for Hendrix fans, but with this new film, we went for a much broader audience-for people who really didn't know that much about the guy. So we used very broad brush strokes and used his music that may be a bit more familiar to the casual listener."

"Music films are also an amazing opportunity to tell all kinds of other stories," explains Neville. "Music opens the door for an audience. The audience may know a certain music, band, songwriter or singer. And once you've got that audience, you can tell all kinds of other stories. So I think the best music films are not just about music.

 "Some of my favorite music films, honestly, are about bands I don't like," Neville continues. "For example, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, The Devil & Daniel Johnston, the Roky Erickson film [You're Gonna Miss Me], Jason Becker: I'm Not Dead Yet, and the Anvil film [Anvil: The Story of Anvil]. I don't own a single record by any of those artists. Take Metallica, and all tribute to them that they allowed that film to be released as it was, because that was a film that spoke to me, just as a person, not at all as a fan. So even if you don't love the music, whether it's A Band Called Death or Daniel Johnston or Metallica, when you hear it in the context of the story, it still can be very moving."

The problem of finding footage to tell your story can be troublesome on both extremes-too little or too much. "When I did my Hank Williams documentary, there was less than 15 minutes of footage," Neville recalls. "And five of those minutes had been previously unknown. Today, a lot of bands have 5,000 to 7,000 hours [of footage]. And that's not even counting what people throw up on YouTube. Bands like Pearl Jam document everything they do, and have been doing so for 18 years. I think there's a sense now that it's all important, which is a whole different set of problems. But then there's no footage of James Brown for the first 10 years of his career, when he was a legend on the Chitlin' circuit in the '50s."

But while footage and stills of musicians past may have been ignored, or worse, tossed out by traditional preservation sources, the good news is there are serious fans and collectors out there who have often, literally, dug through the dustbins. For Amber Edwards, a plus of working outside mainstream preservationists is that "these collectors and passionate people are not there to stick you for the most amount of money" to use what they have. They're just happy to help someone out who wishes to share their passion.

And speaking of money for licensing, these filmmakers get very passionate themselves when discussing the issue of obtaining rights and licenses. "It's such a big bugaboo," says Chaikin. "It was discouraging for me in the beginning because when I looked at this film and said, 'This is a film that's got to have music wall-to-wall in it. How am I ever going to come up with the money to do that?' You would think that the record companies would see this as an opportunity to sell more music. But what has happened is that so many of them have become such major conglomerates that there's hardly a real human being to talk to at any of them. You're getting low-level people, whose job is to look up the cost to sell you a license, and not have any conversation with you about the film. So a documentary is just like any other film to them."

"I wish there was more of a sliding scale of appreciating how much things cost versus what the market is for them," says Neville. "There's stuff sitting in vaults of corporations, whether it's film studios or music labels, that isn't high profile enough to get used. It's not even worth their time, essentially, to work with you and give you the obscure stuff that they own."

All the filmmakers we interviewed acknowledge that the best thing you can do is find an advocate who can help you. That may be a music supervisor who has a strong working relationship with the music labels, or someone else who can just plead your case for you. Chaikin found such an advocate in famed composer Johnny Mandel, who had a relationship with Universal Music. Demme recalled how Neil Young had covered someone else's song in one of Demme's films and simply called the songwriter and got the rights.

But when making a film about music other than from a solo artist or rock band, you can find yourself with another "big bugaboo" that can also eat up your budget. "If you're trying to shoot a symphony orchestra, there are multiple unions involved," Edwards offers as an example. "How it works is that unless you can work with management and the unions there to say, 'Okay, we're going to shoot a total of, say, 25 minutes of this concert, and we're going to use out of that a total of three minutes,' under their rules-and each venue is different-you can either end up paying nothing or maybe some kind of one-time fee for an additional stagehand or something. But if you were going to shoot the whole concert, then you're talking about a payment in addition to all of your crew fees. You'd be paying some kind of stagehand fee to everybody, and then you'd also be paying each of the musicians in that symphony—which could be up to 60 people. Even if it were shot by somebody previously in-house, you would still have to pay again, not just a licensing fee for the video." She suggests avoiding big-name venues in favor of smaller ones who might welcome the exposure.

And then, as in any documentary film, how do you find a balance in the editing room between images, talking heads and music? "It would be very easy to just string together a bunch of performance clips and a bunch of talking heads, but you've got to retain the story element," says Smeaton. "So again, maybe that's why some people look down on music documentaries because some of them haven't got that strong narrative. I've always tried to put the narrative element first. I always print out the transcripts of a film, so I can actually read the film on paper where all I've got are words, not the music. And if it sounds interesting and works based on what the people are saying and the way they're saying it, with the music—which is like Ingredient X—you've got something that really works.

"It can be very tough to just find that rhythm," Smeaton continues. "Even if the performance is great, if it goes 20 seconds longer, you're going to lose your audience. You've got to try to put enough music in there for the people who want to hear the guy play guitar or see him on stage, but the audience who is not going to go crazy over every guitar solo, they're like 'Okay, but let's keep the story moving. Tell me more about him, his relationships, that sort of thing.' It's really finding that rhythm to not just let it be a concert movie."

 "That's the real balancing act, showcasing the music but not forgetting the storyline," adds Chaikin. "It's really knowing how much to let the music play, where to bring the talking in, and how to leave people wanting more so, at the end, everybody will ask, 'Where can I get the CD? Where can I buy this music?'"

 "When music is central," adds Edwards, "it is so powerful and emotional. So you can really use that to propel the narrative in a kind of concentrated way. It's also such a great transitional tool, especially with the sound; you can move onto another scene and let the sound of the last scene trail under. You can anticipate the next scene with some sound coming in, so it's almost like you have so many more tools at your disposal. When you have a musically rich palate, it almost becomes a narrative line of its own."

"It's really important to remember that music films should be about music," Neville asserts. "When I see a film not using songs to the fullest of their ability, I find it frustrating. Music can really make a story point or a character point in such a powerful way, and it can underline the emotions of things in such a strong way. That's what songs are meant to do in a music film. If a performance is revealing something about the story or the character, whether it's lyrically or demonstrably in the performance, it will help dictate how long you want to be on it. I tend to structure scenes around songs because I want the songs to be integrated into the story and character whenever possible. And when you can do that, everything is working in sync—the music, the character and the story."

Smeaton recalls that while when he started making music documentaries he only had stills and footage to help tell his stories; nowadays one needs to be careful not to become over-dependent on the latest computer graphic tricks, which he suggests can date-stamp your film. "These sorts of effects get old pretty quickly," he says. "I remember when I first saw The Kid Stays in the Picture-it was mind-blowingly great, and I used that effect too thereafter. But now when you look at it, it's still a great film because it's a great story, but the effects look old because we've moved so far technologically from that. But then look at Dont Look Back; it still looks modern. It's just 16mm footage and it doesn't look as dated. That's the essence of it."

But beyond all the difficulties and issues to reckon with, there is something about music documentaries that keeps these filmmakers coming back.

"'Why are music documentaries important?'" says Neville. "I guess it's the same as asking, 'Why is music important?' Music fills a place in our lives and our culture that nothing else does. It's something that works for me emotionally and intellectually, and fills a place that's almost kind of spiritual in a lot of peoples' lives. In that way it's kind of endlessly fascinating and to an extent endlessly elusive. And a music film can be a much more dimensional experience. It's just a great way to creatively tell a story about a person or a time."

Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor to Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly, and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry, and lives in Austin, Texas, with his trusty cat, Miles.