There seems to be just an explosion of good music docs out there and I’m determined to see every one.
A couple of years ago, Robbie Robertson published a book called Testimony about his life in The Band and otherwise. There is a new documentary (just saw it at the theater tonight) about The Band called Once Were Brothers. (Trailer here.)
I mention Robbie’s book because this seems to be the visual version of that. And while it is largely from his point of view, it works well as a bio of the guys and briefly recounts the story of their years in Toronto with Ronnie Hawkins, touring with Dylan (and getting booed) and their own success (and, of course, bouts with drugs and alcohol. There is one section in Woodstock where Richard Manuel wrecks a car and Levon Helm – en route to help him – crashes into a police car and himself gets arrested.)
What I especially liked about this doc is the way they detail how they really were a brotherhood, how they loved each other and then how it all fell apart. “I don’t know of any other group of musicians with a story equivalent to the story of the Band,” Robertson says, “and it was a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful it went up in flames.”
An accompanying playlist of Band, Dylan and influences was published so I recreated it on Spotify using the exact same versions they chose. (I left out “Je t’aime” by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Feel free to go looking for that one.)
Back in 1971, David Crosby released a solo album called If I Could Only Remember My Name. That was the only solo album he was to release until 1989’s Oh Yes I Can. In the intervening years, his life was one big misadventure of drugs, arrests, and alienation of friends.
This documentary – Remember My Name – may just as well have been called The Rise and Fall and Rise of David Crosby. If I have one problem with this doc – and this was true of the Johnny Winter one I saw – is that they stick the subject of the doc in a car and drive him around to his old haunts with greatly mixed results.
His is the usual tale of sex, drugs, rock and roll and regret. Great regret when he admits that A) he was somewhat of an asshole and B) all of his early bandmates – Stills, Nash, Young – hate him “very much.” It didn’t help, for just one example, when Crosby called Young’s then-girlfriend (now wife) Daryl Hannah a ‘purely poisonous predator.’
So, an interesting look at an up-and-down life. All that said, he’s contentedly married but admits he has to go on the road to make a living as he never really had a solo hit. That may be one of the harshest truths of the rock life – that unless you make it big, the road goes on forever.
Our Canadian pal Cincinnati Babyhead clued me in to the fact that there is a Miles Davis bio playing on public television here in the US. (But I believe it was first shown in theaters so it might be available elsewhere.) It’s called Miles Davis: The Birth of the Cool and it does a pretty good job of detailing Miles’ life from St. Louis to New York City and beyond.
It goes through his early life in a well-to-do family to his stint at Juilliard to his playing in bands on 52nd Street with the likes of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. It goes into (sigh) his heroin addiction which had him down and out for a while. All the while that great music plays in the background. Eventually, it gets to the Sixties where he realizes he’s playing to half-empty clubs (times had changed) while guys like Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix are making money hand over fist for playing a couple of hours.
Thus, to a certain extent, was jazz-rock born. They played some of it in the documentary and while I like albums like Bitches’ Brew, they will never replace the classic quintets he had earlier. At least not for me.
Historical note – a video played during the doc and it had this picture of Miles with John Lennon and Yoko. This mammoth event caught my eye as I hadn’t heard about it before.
Apparently, at some point in 1971 (that year again), Lennon’s manager had a party and guys like Miles and Warhol showed up. John and Miles played (poorly) a game of pick-up basketball. I don’t know what Miles thought of the Beatles but Lennon did not like jazz, that much I know. He called himself a “record guy,” meaning all those great early ’50s and ’60s rock and pop tunes.
This link probably won’t work for you if you’re outside the US. And I can’t even guarantee this will play in your area if you are in the States. PBS is weird.
The documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice has been around a little while but I’ve yet to write about it. This is another good doc with narration by Ronstadt herself. (As glorious as her singing voice was, I’ve always found her speaking voice to be flat and monotonic.)
But this one does a good job of delving into Ronstadt’s Arizona roots as a Mexican-American. Her whole family was musical and she spent her time singing around the house. Moving to California, she falls in with that scene’s folkies, joins the Stone Poneys, then goes on her own. (All of this is in my brief series on her.)
Alas, Ronstadt has been diagnosed with a degenerative disease called progressive supranuclear palsy and can no longer sing. At 73, she is less the hot chick she was and more like your kindly grandmother. It’s poignant at the end to see her doing her best to sing with her nephew. She has since been honored at the Kennedy Center Honors.