The feature-length, often colon-titled musician portrait is such a fixture of nonfiction filmmaking these days that you might begin to assume that every notable musician now has one. Film festivals and the documentary section of Netflix are reliable places to find them, with portrait docs riding the sudden wave of popularity for big-canvas cinema documentaries that followed two wildly popular 2004 releases, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me.
Biographical docs benefit from a built-in audience for their subject, and iconic musicians boast bigger fanbases than most. So it was that when Asif Kapadia made Amy, his 2015 portrait of Amy Winehouse, it broke box office records, taking £3m on its opening weekend and going on to become the biggest British documentary ever released.
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Not all performers can promise such interest, but there are other cases when the big-screen documentary can instead play a vital role in reviving interest in neglected figures – see for example Matt Wolf’s essential portrait of Arthur Russell, Wild Combination (2008), or Tyler Hubby’s recent celebration of Tony Conrad, Completely in the Present (2016).
Where once such potted histories of great musicians were the preserve of hour-long TV entries in series like Arena or The South Bank Show, there is now an enduring appetite for going long. The theatrical doc is an opportunity for a definitive statement.
The latest entry in this booming sub-genre is Whitney “Can I Be Me” – a tragic account of the life of Whitney Houston, using unseen footage from the singer’s final tour. No stranger to the music doc, Nick Broomfield has previously tackled Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie & Tupac (2002), but he absents himself from the screen this time, letting those who knew Houston do the talking. What emerges is an affectingly sad study on the cost of fame.
We’ve kept band documentaries out of the list below. Instead these 10 films – like Broomfield’s – zero in on an individual performer, each shedding some light on the turmoil, passion and creativity that the greatest of musicians have in spades.
Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988)
Director: Charlotte Zwerin
Charlotte Zwerin began her career as an editor working with the documentary pioneers Albert and David Maysles, including on the notorious Rolling Stones concert film Gimme Shelter (1970). Profiles of musicians later became her forte as director, with work on Ella Fitzgerald, Toru Takemitsu and – in this Clint Eastwood-produced release from 1988 – the legendary bebop pianist Thelonious Monk.
At her disposal Zwerin had a treasure trove of Monk material that was shot for a German TV documentary in the late 1960s but had never been seen since. This she slices and dices with new interviews with members of Monk’s inner circle, including his manager Harry Colomby and his son Thelonious Monk Jr. It’s all fascinating stuff – the only trouble being that the at-the-piano-stool footage of Monk’s fevered playing is so thrilling that it’s difficult not to resent every cutaway to a talking head. You almost wish the film was literally Monk straight, with no chaser. Nevertheless, with its transportive evocation of smoky New York clubs and precious snippets of Monk behind the scenes, this is manna from heaven for jazz nuts.
Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993)
Director: François Girard
In François Girard’s dizzying portrait of the eponymous classical Canadian pianist, the director employs a restlessly experimental form to poetically reflect the characteristics of his troubled, complex subject – the famously eccentric Gould passed away at just 50, in 1982, following complications from a stroke.
With a structure inspired by Bach’s Goldberg Variations – the compositions that formed the basis for one of Gould’s most well-known recordings – the film unfolds as a series of fragmented yet complementary vignettes that strive to evoke the multifaceted spirit of a man, rather than psychologise, valourise or explain him. These segments are a blend of artfully dramatised snapshots crafted in a variety of visual styles (Gould is portrayed here by the magnetically intense actor Colm Feore), insightful filmed interviews with Gould’s friends and associates, and, in one memorable instance, animation by the great Scottish/Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren.
The very definition of an underrated, underseen gem, Girard’s film also holds the distinct honour of being the inspiration for The Simpsons’ classic, narratively audacious 1996 episode ‘22 Short Films about Springfield’.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
The music industry is no stranger to artists with mental health problems, but it’s hard to think of anyone whose illness – in this case severe bipolar disorder – is as entwined with their creative output as Daniel Johnston’s. First garnering cult status in the 1980s Austin scene, his music is emotionally raw, childlike and shakily melodic (and even more shakily recorded), yet everyone from Karen O to Tom Waits has covered his songs.
Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary interviews a visibly greying Johnston, his family and friends, and includes a wealth of the artist’s own home video and audio recordings, which lend the film a fascinating contemporary first-person perspective. Replete with hazardous, heartbreaking and humorous incident – whether perilously forcing his father to crash land a plane or sincerely suggesting that The Beatles reform as his backing band, while in a mental institution – this is an absorbing film whether you’re a fan or not. It’s as much a complex study of mental illness, creativity and the toll it takes as it is music biopic. However, Feuerzeig never underestimates the pain that Johnston’s self-destructive behaviour causes, and, while his friends laud his genius, his distressed parents sadly pick up the pieces.
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006)
Director: Stephen Kijak
Yes, you’ll see a slab of meat punched to create a fleshy rhythm. But you will also see a golden-haired angel of the 60s croon his way into a million teenager’s hearts. Such are the delights contained within Stephen Kijak’s biography. It captures Scott’s unparalleled musical journey across four decades, travelling from pop idol through avant-garde film-obsessed crooner to pork-bludgeoning late-blossoming experimentalist.
The film is frequently as intense as its subject. (On camera, he is an unsurprisingly brooding interviewee in the midst of recording The Drift.) Yet its true strength lies beyond the interviews with Walker, as it focuses on his music. Most powerful is the set up of observing top-tier artists listening to music. On paper, it should fail. Instead, the film blossoms with intense personal moments from the likes of Jarvis Cocker and Alison Goldfrapp.
Best of all is the split screen of David Bowie (who executive produces) and Radiohead listening to ‘The Old Man’s Back Again’. Their contrasting reactions – giving insight into themselves and indeed Scott Walker – light up the screen in this accomplished biography.
The Punk Singer (2013)
Director: Sini Anderson
Lead singer in Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, Kathleen Hanna was the central figure in riot grrrl, a feminist punk movement born in the US in the early 1990s. She’s also known for inspiring Kurt Cobain to write one of Nirvana’s most famous songs after spray painting “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his apartment wall.
Travelling through Hanna’s life up to the present day, The Punk Singer shows Hanna struggling with her diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease and the treatment she has to endure. While the film was made with Hanna’s fans in mind, treating them to unseen footage and candid interviews with contemporaries such as Kim Gordon and Lynn Breedlove, there’s an emotional honesty on display here that should prove affecting even to viewers with no understanding of Hanna’s work or influence. Sini Anderson’s film is a superb portrait of a once vibrant music icon looking back at her glory years with wonder.
Finding Fela! (2014)
Director: Alex Gibney
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the renowned Afrobeat king who fought for human rights in his native Nigeria, became a musical idol by teasing his country’s repressive government and brutal police through songs such as ‘Zombie’ and ‘Go Slow’. Originally planned as a backstage document of Fela!, the award-winning Broadway musical (and the first in history to be transported to Africa with its original cast, for a short run in Kuti’s home city of Lagos), Alex Gibney’s film portrait of the legendary musician also unearths a wealth of archive material.
Finding Fela! takes us inside Kuti’s commune, ‘Kalakuta Republic’, the sovereign nation where his 27 wives, children and band members resided. It’s where Kuti was seriously injured following a raid by the Nigerian army in 1977, which also resulted in his mother dying after being thrown from a window. There’s also vivid footage of the Afrika ’70 in concert in Berlin in 1978, alongside interviewees including fellow musicians, friends, the musical’s director, Bill T. Jones, and outtakes from the previous Fela Kuti documentary Music Is the Weapon (1982).
Nas: Time Is Illmatic (2014)
This illuminating look at rapper Nas delves into the ‘why’ of his success as much as the ‘how’. Rather than focusing on studio production minutiae, One9’s film uses Nas’s vital 1994 album Illmatic only as a jumping-off point, making for a richer look at the Queens native than a standard making-of doc.
The opening 15 minutes about Olu Dara, Nas’s musician father, provide a fascinating vignette in themselves, saying much about male African American experience in the US in the 20th century. Later, the burgeoning Big Apple hip-hop scene of the 80s and the concurrent crack epidemic that destroyed American inner-cities are explored. Absorbing archive material fleshes out the story amid glossy contemporary footage of Nas on stage and at home. If at times we’re close to a hagiography of the MC himself, we’re also never far from grim life in the Queensbridge projects. On the cusp of Nas’s record deal, his best friend ‘Ill Will’ Graham is murdered. Twenty years later, many friends from the Illmatic sleeve photo are serving lengthy prison sentences.
Director: Asif Kapadia
Winner of the Oscar for best documentary feature, Amy is a thoughtful study of the public life and death of British soul-pop singer Amy Winehouse. Directed by Asif Kapadia, whose previous sports doc Senna (2010) was similarly acclaimed and immersive, the film interweaves recordings of Winehouse and her friends, family and colleagues from phones, camcorders, newsreels and TV shows.
Winehouse sold 12m copies of her 2006 breakthrough album Back to Black, which also won her five Grammys. But her life and relationship with her father, husband and manager became increasingly troubled, and eventually her widely reported trouble with drugs and alcohol began to overshadow her talent and vibrant personality. From early home movies via her first steps in the music industry to her tragic death in 2011 at the age of just 27, Kapadia’s shattering documentary gives no answers to her deterioration. Instead it paints a unique and powerful picture of this vibrant north London-born singer-songwriter.
Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho (2015)
Director: Liam Barker
Like his contemporary John Fahey, Robbie Basho was knocked sideways when he encountered the sitar music of Ravi Shankar. This was in the early 60s – and several years before George Harrison made the discovery. Thereafter he began to adopt hypnotic raga-like structures in his acoustic guitar music, drawing in cosmic inspirations from Native American culture and Asia for a succession of sublimely open-hearted records that summon the great forests and canyons of the American west.
Liam Barker’s valuable portrait captures much about what makes Basho so inspiring. Voice of the Eagle charts the singer and guitarist’s damaging experience with LSD (described as the equivalent of throwing a grenade into a flower), his sartorial eccentricities, his time amid California sufis and his sad death in 1986 as the result of a freak chiropractic accident. The picture that emerges is of an earnest, difficult soul – one not quite made for this world. Yet it was Basho’s apartness from society that allowed him to push idiosyncratically into new musical realms that still aren’t fully appreciated or acknowledged. Voice of the Eagle is a step forward in that process.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Director: Liz Garbus
She is an icon of music: Nina Simone, the classically-trained, jazz-inspired whirlwind with a voice of heart-wrenching emotion. ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ isn’t even the start of it. So naturally, Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? is packed with electrifying performances. And that alone makes this a superb artefact.
At the close though, it’s the story that haunts almost as much as the music. The film shows Simone suffering from that burden of being dismissed as difficult, but, today, it looks far more like someone with an inherent disgust of prejudice and doubletalk. As a child she missed out on her dream to be a concert pianist as a result of segregation, and her life became a constant fight against injustice. The struggle peaked as she embraced the civil rights movement in the 60s: her song ‘Mississippi Goddam’ remains a powerful and inspirational attack on racism. Her commercial career was put on ice, and privately she span out of control.
By turns inspirational and deeply depressing, What Happened, Miss Simone? is a portrait that resonates long after the closing credits.