Four Music Documentaries You Should See

There seems to be just an explosion of good music docs out there and I’m determined to see every one.ย 

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. โ€œI donโ€™t know of any other group of musicians with a story equivalent to the story of the Band,โ€ Robertson says, โ€œand 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.

Full Film | Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

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.

25 thoughts on “Four Music Documentaries You Should See

  1. I don’t know if you will find this surprising, but the only one of these I really want to see is the Davis one. And you’re right about this being the one I recorded. I know all about some of his antics and personality from others but I’m sure there will be some cool musical stories on collaborations. Plus I do dig his music.
    I’m sure the others would be worth a watch. Maybe down the road. Like you say there are so many floating around out there. I’ve been watching a few lately also. One I enjoyed was ‘The Ambassadors’.I think you’d like it. If ever some one got hung with a bad tag “Uncle Tom” it’s Louis Armstrong. He doesnt hold back calling the then Prez something that rhymes with mother trucker.

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        1. Had to step out for a second. I’ve heard RRs thoughts enough. I think you mentioned that about the Last Waltz (Which I love). I had a feel after reading his book and seeing a few interviews that there was maybe some guilt and justification going on. Leave it at that.

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        2. I hear you on that. I’d urge you to rethink it when it’s widely available. I think you’ll get the real sense of brotherhood and love these guys had for each other. I totally get the guys maybe helped Robbie arrange the stuff. And maybe they coulda should split the profits better. But there’s no question but that RR was the primary songwriter and that as the other guys succumbed to drugs he couldn’t engage them. Can’t blame him for that. Anyway, I think you’d like it but, your call.

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        3. I totally get the “drugs” thing. I felt for Robertson in that situation. Maybe that’s where I get the guilt thing. He was helpless in that place. In hindsight maybe thinking he could have done more. I would have walked. There’s just other things that rub me. But I will probably watch it sometime. Inevitable. I wasnt going to read his book but Earl got it for me. No bigger fan of “The Bands” music than CB.
          I also got lots of good listening out of the solo work. Case in point, my take on Danko’s first one. Even though I have most of the solo stuff, That is at the top of the heap. Thanks for the nudge Doc.

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        4. Trust me, you’ll like it. RR’s love for Levon is palpable. Shit just went wrong. Robbie could have handled it better but drugs just fuck everything up. Don’t forget the Spotify soundtrack.

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        5. I trust ya fella. Well said on the situation. What a shit storm for everyone involved. To bad things couldnt have been amended. A lesson there somewhere. Soundtrack,I’ll give it a spin. Right now witha little workout.

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        6. Funny you should mention that. So there’s a theater not too far from me that shows a lot of the docs. Saw the Janis one there a while back. I had gotten tix to see a new Chuck doc called “Chuck Berry: The King of Rock ‘n Roll.” Was gonna go with Bill and another guy just a week or so ago.
          All of a sudden I get an email. Fucking thing is canceled due to “circumstances beyond our control.” If it was Chuck himself I would have figured he was just being Chuck. I’m not sure how films get into theaters but I’m assuming they didn’t get it on time. Anyway, I’ll keep my eyes open.

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        7. “King Of Rock n Roll” That’s Jerry Lee, just ask him.
          I’ll watch that. Who knows on the specs of that shit. You don’t think Chuck is still causing trouble do ya? More on Chuck later. Interesting dude.

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  2. Good stuff, Jim. In general, I also enjoy watching music documentaries. I did catch the one about Linda Ronstadt in early Jan when it aired on CNN and liked it – in addition to her voice, her versatility was impressive.

    Iโ€™d also be curious to watch the documentaries on David Crosby and The Band. As for Miles Davis, while I appreciate his influence, I never warmed to his music Iโ€™ve heard.

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    1. Both the Crosby and Band ones are well worth any fans’ time. As to the Miles, that’s a tough one if you’re not a fan. However, if you find the time to watch it – and it’s free on PBS – his life story is not uninteresting. Although having said that, I suppose if someone said that to me about, say, Garth Brooks I’d just shrug.

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  3. Iโ€™m keen to see The Band doc and this Miles one interests me (though Iโ€™ll have to hope it appears on Netflix or the likes).

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    1. The Band one, of course, is told from Robbie Robertson’s perspective. But as I was telling CB, he does it with love and affection for those guys and the rest is just shit gone wrong. If you like them you will like this.

      And yeah, PBS (our public television) did not create the Miles one so it should show up in the usual places eventually. BTW, I don’t know if you’re a Coltrane fan or not but a doc I reviewed a while back – Chasing Trane – is on Netflix.

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      1. I spotted Chasing Trane a few weeks ago and added it to the list (I think I spend more time adding and reviewing that list than I do watching stuff). Should hopefully watch it over the next week or so.

        Sometimes I’ve been able to access PBS stuff on the site. Not always, which is strange.

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        1. PBS is unpredictable even here. It’s very local to the station. My sister lives in Philly and we often see different episode of the same show. When she dialed up the Miles website the show was gone yet I was able to watch it

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    1. And his bands were always great too. All that said, I vastly prefer his traditional acoustic work to the electric stuff. It just holds up better for me. Don’t forget the Coltrane one BTW if you haven’t yet seen it. Chasing Trane.

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