Article on the arts: best music documentaries of 2021 – and some disappointments

By Noah Schaffer

This list consists of recent music documentaries that I have released over the past year – a few hiccups as well as the most notable.

Local theaters may have reopened this year, but I only saw one movie in person (and it wasn’t a documentary). Again, this list consists of recent musical material that I have streamed throughout the year. Independently produced and distributed films often spend well over a year on the festival circuit, so some of them may have official studio release dates of 2020, while others have debuted at. festival at the end of this year and will likely not be readily available in all markets for some time to come. If a specific movie looks interesting but is not currently available, it’s worth visiting the movie’s website to see if the movie has a mailing list or social media feed that lists streaming and viewing opportunities. in person to come.

The best:

A scene from The kings of rumba.

The kings of rumba – Africa and the Caribbean have had a musical conversation for decades. One of the most glorious results of the confab: the sound of the Congolese rumba which developed when musicians living under Belgian colonial rule took over Afro-Cuban rhythms. Grand Kallé, Dr Nico and the famous prolific Franco are among those who were part of the heyday of Congolese rumba. They are presented with a surprising amount of high-quality footage and interviews from the surviving musicians of the time. While documentary makers on little-known genres often feel the need to be included in the mix, Kings of Rumba filmmaker Alan Brain cleverly withdraws from the film and simply lets the Congolese tell their own story of the enduring music they made under brutal colonial oppression.

A scene from Poly styrene: I’m a cliché.

Poly styrene: I’m a clichéThe explosion of punk rock in the late 1970s was perhaps only after the emergence of The Beatles and Dylan in the 1960s as the most documented era in pop music history. So, there is a high bar for any filmmaker trying to find a new angle. But there are nooks and crannies of that story that are still worth exploring, as evidenced by the story of Poly Styrene, a biracial teenager whose band X-Ray Spex turned heads in a musical world largely dominated by white men. The X-Ray Spex didn’t last very long, and struggling mentally, Styrene avoided the limelight until a well-received comeback shortly before her death in 2011. Like many music documentaries, the the subject’s offspring played a role in its achievement. Memories aren’t always easy, but they are revealed in an empathetic way, which makes for a captivating film regardless of music interest. [The movie is slated to screen at the Brattle in early February and on Showtime in June.] Artistic fuse review

Summer of the soulQuestlove is perhaps the most ubiquitous presence as a talking head in music docs – for example, he appears in recent films about Doc Severinsen and Herb Albert, both of which were endearing but too numerous to make this list. What he does with the astonishing footage from the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival gives hope that he’ll spend more time on the other side of the camera – and songs like Sly and the Family Stone and the 5th Dimension that don’t. have not done it in this film will one day see the light of day. Instead of relying on critics or younger artists, Questlove found audience members – a group often overlooked in art documentaries – and gave them the opportunity to talk about the impact and inspiration of the film. festival. Even though the story of how the images were discovered didn’t really match the marketing of the movie, Summer of the soul earned its hype as one of the most essential musical documentaries of all time. Artistic fuse review

Fanny: The right to rock – If there is one group ahead of its time, it is Fanny. The hard rockers of the early ’70s weren’t just an all-girl group that toured extensively years before the Runaways or Go-Gos, the group included queer and Asian-American members. There’s plenty of pristine footage from the band in their prime, as well as flawless interviews with most of the members, including West Massachusetts-based June Millington. The film does not always put the group in context and it does not understand why the rediscovery of the group was so late. (Like Ann Powers done in this essay.) But the film still offers an excellent introduction.

No ordinary man – Billy Tipton is certainly not known for his jazz career, which consisted of companion work and a pair of nice but mundane cocktail piano records from the mid-1950s. But his death in 1989 made headlines. newspapers when it was discovered that he was apparently born to a woman, unbeknownst to his longtime wife or adopted children. Snippets of how Tipton’s story was covered at the time underscore how sensationalized transgender issues were. But in the years that followed, Tipton grew into something of a weird icon – a The west coast jazz band named after Tipton have released 14 albums. Billy Tipton Jr. is interviewed about his father’s legacy, but much of this refreshing, unconventional film consists of young gay actors reading a script about Tipton’s life and discussing what they take away from his story. .

Harmonies of lampposts – The sounds of doo-wop group harmony played a major role in the development of early rock, but are often overlooked when pop history is told. This well-crafted documentary goes a long way to remedy that. Considering the advanced age of the artists interviewed, the filmmakers made the film just in time. The story, from its gospel roots to its impact on Motown and beyond, is perfectly told.

A scene from Listening to Kenny G.

Listen to Kenny G – The smooth jazz soprano saxophone star has long been an easy punching bag to criticize, making it an excellent documentary subject. The information about the man here isn’t particularly revealing – he’s even richer than we thought, thanks to the fact that he was an early Starbucks investor, and he really enjoys winning. Where the film shines is how it balances the perspective of jazz critics like Ben Ratliff and Will Layman with the appreciation Kenny G listeners have for the role his songs have played in their lives. (Not explicitly stated, but clearly obvious, is how smooth jazz has long attracted a large, black, middle-class audience.) No Coltrane lover is likely to come away with a new desire to hear more music. of Kenny, but those prone to musical snobbery would be wise to consider the film’s points on what makes music good or bad. Artistic fuse review

Bitchin ‘: The Sound and Fury of Rick James – Rick James passed away as a sort of Dave Chappelle punchline. This film gives him his credit as a significant pioneer of funk and pop without ignoring the demons that led to his long cocaine addiction and multiple stints in prison for offenses including the horrific kidnapping and abuse of women. Casual fans may be particularly surprised by the story of James’ early years in Canada playing with Neil Young. Ultimately, the film does more than make a case for James as a key transitional figure, even if it shows just how another artist he was whose own life rarely had the kind of happiness his music brought. to others.

Disappointments:

Brian Wilson: long road promised – Almost everything that should be avoided in a musical documentary is on display here. The creative genius behind the Beach Boys has been the subject of seemingly endless film and book projects before. The main excuse for making the film seems to be that the infamous Wilson was interviewed for 70 hours – all on car rides or having lunch with a friend. Rolling stone journalist. But apparently so little interest came from these discussions that the film had to be stuffed with snippets from old Wilson interviews and, worst of all, celebrity talking heads like a Jonas Brother and a guy from the Foo Fighters who is transported when Dave Grohl is not available. A scene where Wilson is filmed sitting in silence during a recent studio session while his abusive father’s audio is played seems particularly exploitative.

Mr. Saturday night – Robert Stigwood was one of the most successful film and music impresarios of the 1970s thanks to Saturday night fever, Fat, and the RSO label. But by the mid-1980s he had cashed and his label was gone, with Stigwood spending the rest of his life dodging taxes on a yacht in the Caribbean. The film eschews talking heads for audio interviews and old footage – conveniently masking the number of those interviews that are picked up from other sources. In the end, Stigwood turns out to be too much of a conundrum for the filmmakers; it’s basically a portrait of a guy who really succeeded until he wasn’t. The coverage of the end of the reign is particularly unsatisfactory; for example, a lawsuit filed by its golden geese, the Bee Gees, is being ignored. The story of Nick Cohn, the journalist whose New York magazine article leads to film Saturday night fever turns out to be more interesting than anything about Stigwood himself.


Over the past 15 years Noah schaffer has written about otherwise unrecognized musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, Africa, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over 10 awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.


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