Reviews of documentaries (part 2) (music-related)

Today, for part 2 in this series, we’ll look at documentaries about music. I have not previously shared these reviews. So let’s get to it:

Amy (2015) (Asif Kapadia)
Right now Amy is my favorite documentary of 2015, I was moved emotionally by the story. A vulnerable person and even though she had problems(eating disorder,drugs) I admire her honesty in the music. For me, just as captivating as Asif Kapadia’s 2010 documentary Senna was.

Rating 9/10

Gimme Shelter (1970) (multiple directors)
Interesting enough look at the Rolling Stones. Maybe the documentary is a bit overrated and not as shocking as it once was, it’s considered one of the best music documentaries of all time.
Live versions of their hits, mixed with behind-the-scenes clips. We get to hear about their US tour, the audience misbehaving during concerts, the organizations of the events. About celebrity life, and the dangers of attending concerts. The disastrous 1969 Altamont concert can be perceived as the flip side of Woodstock’s peace, love, and groovy. Poses questions about community and responsibility without ever asking them explicitly.
Rating 7/10

Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (2015) (Alex Gibney)
Chronicles the ups and downs of the career of Frank Sinatra. His early success as a singer at Columbia records is derailed by rumors of him being a part of the mob and extra-marital affairs with a wife at home didn’t do him and his popularity any favors.
Touches on his connections to the mob, which at first seem to have been completely fabricated by the press, although in later years Sinatra had connections to the mafia when he was in Las Vegas with the rat pack, and asked the mob to give money towards the civil rights movement. He is depicted as a lady’s man who spent money like there was no tomorrow, this led to him losing his fortune.
He managed to get a part in From Here To Eternity (1953) which kick started his career again. He would win an Oscar for the role. He signed with Capital records and made many hits with them.
Didn’t know he fought against racism and segregation and helped colored artists such as Sammy Davis Jr into show business. Sinatra is described as restless, with many interests, in business, politics, music, movies, segregation, raising money for charity. He led an eventful and exciting life, and similar to the recent documentary about Roger Ebert, it isn’t afraid to look at the man’s faults.
It’s tough for me to be critical and comment on what was left out, because I’m a newbie to his career. I would say at over 4 hours it was detailed, but maybe overlong. Now I want to watch the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
Favorite quote: “He used the songs to tell the story of himself, and he tells us our story through his story”
Rating 8/10

Bad 25 (2012) (Spike Lee) 
A look at the making of Michael Jackson’s album Bad (1987). 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the album’s release. If you are a fan, there are some interesting anecdotes, and we hear from Scorsese, Quincy Jones and others. Especially interesting was the relationship between Michael and model/dancer Tatiana Thumbtzen in The Way You Make Me Feel video. Apparently he was too shy to have a romance with her, even though Jackson’s mother supposedly convinced her he was interested.
The reason I’m not giving the doc a higher rating is because a lot of it feels like padding and talking heads just praising MJ. A decent effort by Spike Lee, the doc goes into each of the songs, but most of what was said I knew already.
Entertaining enough and you may find a new appreciation for Bad, but in the end, it felt like a commercial for buying the album rather than an in-depth look at the music and its reception, which is a pity. Obviously with no new interview with the late Michael Jackson it could never be a definitive documentary.
Rating 6.5/10

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) (Todd Haynes)
An unconventional bio-pic about the last seven years of Karen Carpenter’s life. The title is derived from The Carpenters’ 1971 hit song Superstar.
The characters are presented as modified Barbie dolls, yet it still resonates emotionally. Parts of the film reminded me of Requiem for a Dream (2000), and there are horrific scenes which are equally as powerful as Aronofsky’s film.
The best film I’ve ever seen about anorexia, which Karen Carpenter was a victim of. Karen was told she was chubby as a teenager, and took this to the extreme with dieting and lost a lot of weight. It’s really a film about all women, because there is an unspoken expectation in our culture that thin is beautiful. Although the songs are used throughout, it isn’t really about her music.
Rating 8/10

New York Doll (2005) (Greg Whiteley)
Thanks to Steven at Surrender To The Void for the recommendation. A moving and unforgettable tribute to Arthur “Killer” Kane, the bass guitarist of the pioneering 70s glam rock band The New York Dolls. Following him in the 2000s, the documentary paints him as a flawed but likable musician, and with this documentary he finally gets the recognition and reconciliation he wanted. Kane lost his way after the group broke up, and didn’t have the same success that the other band members achieved. Having little money, he became a religious man and worked at a library. In 2004, The New York Dolls reunite, and Kane rekindles with lead singer David Johansen, they are now older and it’s moving to see them play again and put their problems behind them. A touching story worth seeing, even if you have no interest in The New York Dolls.
Rating 9/10

A Skin Too Few – The Days of Nick Drake (2000) (Jeroen Berkvens)
As someone who has read a book about the singer, this documentary lasting 48 min felt too slight. I’d imagine it’s a good starting point if you are new to Nick Drake, but if you know about his career already it doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking. There’s an interview with his sister and a friend from college. 
Rating 7/10

Metal Evolution (2011) (Documentary TV Series)
Broken down into episodes about a different piece of metal history. The series includes interviews with many of the faces of metal. I saw the episodes that had interest to me and was interesting to follow the history of metal and how it developed into different subgenres. I didn’t know Mötley Crüe were penniless to begin with. People describing the appeal of metal music was fascinating. The interviewer/presenter Sam Dunn is keen to dig into what the musicians were influenced by. I was already exploring heavy metal this summer, and now I have a new list of bands to explore.
Rating 8/10

And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years Of Hip Hop (2004)
Episode 3: Gangsta Gangsta, and E4: Life After Death
A five-part look at the history of the hip-hop culture, I haven’t seen E1 and E2, which I imagine look at early hip hop, Public Enemy and other bands.
I wasn’t following hip hop in the late 80s and early 90s, so this was a good introduction. Very thorough with lots of artists interviewed. Considered among the best hip hop documentaries, and nominated for an IDA award in 2005.
New York is described as the mecca and birthplace for hip hop during the 1980s, and a place with racially charged incidents. The rap music depicted how the black artists felt about social issues and life on the street, and listeners could relate. I’m not surprised the movie Straight Outta Compton (2015) got made now, with the racial tension in the US at the moment.
The angry and controversial debut album Straight Outta Compton (1988) by N.W.A  has been viewed as the pioneering record of gangsta rap with its ever-present profanity and violent lyrics, and was hugely influential on hip hop in the years that followed.
Ice Cube split from the group over money issues and made another defining hip hop album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990).
Later, Dr Dre also left N.W.A and released his successful  debut album The Chronic (1992) on his own label, and it was a major influence on future hip hop, popularizing the G-funk subgenre and introduced Snoop Dog to the world.
Episode 4 discusses Wu-Tang Clan, a group of nine who could all rap. Nas is mentioned, but not explored in-depth. Then looks at the rise of Tupac Shakur, who wrote about thug life and the black panther revolutionaries, but saw no contradiction in that. Tupuc led a turbulent life and the east coast vs west coast rivalry he had with The Notorious B.I.G. is delved into.
Rating 8/10

Have you watched any of these documentaries? Which is your favorite music-related documentary? As always, comments are welcome.

18 thoughts on “Reviews of documentaries (part 2) (music-related)

  1. Thanks for the recommendations Chris! I've been wanting to check out the AMY documentary. I didn't know the Sinatra: All or Nothing at All doc was by Alex Gibney, he's an excellent documentarian.


  2. You’re welcome Ruth! Amy (2015) I saw at the cinema and was very moving, I loved it. Agree Gibney is an excellent documentarian, the Sinatra doc is actually split into two parts because it’s over 4 hours, so I’d suggest watching it over several days.


  3. You're welcome. I'm glad you saw New York Doll which only made me love the Dolls even more. I also liked that doc on Sinatra (which I need to do a full review of soon) and the Metal Evolution series (w/ the exception of the episode on grunge which I thought was very weak), Todd Haynes' short, and of course, Gimme Shelter. I have seen that Bad 25 doc which now doesn't hold up for me as I think what you said about the film being a commercial of sorts is pretty spot-on. Plus, I wish they cut out Chris Brown's appearance as I just flat-out hate that bitch.


  4. Amy was heart breaking. I just watched Montage of Heck which I was a bit disappointed with. Felt like an excuse for anyone who had any leftover home videos of Kurt to come forward and let the world see them. Was a bit too personal and I'm not sure that Kurt would have liked the world seeing a lot of that footage.


  5. @thevoidd99: Loved the documentary about Kane, I will check out the two 70s albums by The New York Dolls at some point,
    I didn’t see the episode on grunge in Metal Evolution, I saw E1-E6, very interesting. I may check E7-E12 later on.
    The Bad 25 doc was ok, could have been better, too much praise for the musician gets boring after a while, and a lot of what was said was old news.


  6. Wow! You've been busy. I love music docs so I am interested in all of these…except And You Don't Stop since I've already seen it. Glad you watched it. Hope you get to see the earlier parts aince that really lays the foundation.

    I most want to see Amy and the Sinatra doc. Sinatra led a fascinating life. A large part of Rat Pack lore is refusing to play, stay, and eat at places where Sammy Davis Jr. wasn't welcomed. Amy Winehouse also led an interesting life, but for far different reasons. I had no idea the Karen Carpenter doc existed, but you've piqued my interest, there.

    Great post.


  7. @Wendell: When time permits, I’ll finish the hip hop doc. I learnt a lot from the two parts I saw. It’s interesting Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A has entered the billboard charts this year due to the new movie:

    I also learnt a lot about Frank Sinatra’s life from watching the doc, I didn’t know that anecdote about the Rat Pack you mention.

    The Karen Carpenter short is considered a cult film and is sometimes mention on best shorts of all-time lists, which is why I gave it a try.

    And finally, thank you!


  8. I've only seen Gimme Shelter, but I loved it. The combination of the great live music and the after the fact reviewing of the footage, and especially Mick Jagger's reaction to the killing, was great to me.


  9. @Chip Lary: The Rolling Stones doc was a great time capsule. I admit the ending was riveting, but to me was a bit lacking in substance in the first hour. Hell's Angels must hate this film exists.


  10. I suppose Sinatra's life is quite rich that there's enough material for a 4-hr doc. I'm also curious to see the Marlon Brando doc, it's not music related, I just thought I mentioned it.


  11. @Ruth: Indeed, Sinatra had a busy life so there was enough for the 4 hour the running time.
    I’ve made a note of the Marlon Brando doc, thank you, sounds interesting!


  12. @Vern: Asif Kapadia has the ability of making great documentaries that you can enjoy, even if you have little interest in the subject matter(Formula One or Amy Winehouse)
    Superstar is an interesting obscurity which deserves to be seen, especially if you are a fan of short films and have an interest in eating disorders.


  13. Oh, I really want to see Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, as well as Gimme Shelter. Amy was amazing. Completely heartbreaking, but spellbinding. It's one of my favorites of the year, too.


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