To stimulate your creative senses while party life remains on hold, we present our fourth round up of eminently watchable documentaries from across the cultural spectrum.
#1 Behind the curtain
A diverse set of documentaries that dig deep to capture the magic of true artists at work.
What it’s about: “Making music is like a language, it’s my way of communicating with people. I definitely go into this stream of consciousness world, like I’m in an alternate reality”. Sampha
Why to watch it: The beauty of Song Exploder is that half way through watching your first episode, you realise this hasn’t been done before - certainly not in this detail, across so many styles and genres, and in such a wonderfully understated way. This goes way beyond the standard“I keep a notebook by my bed” school of songwriting analysis and deconstruction. Each episode has its own unique setting, in which hostHrishikesh Hirway gently probes his subjects, a technique he honed on the Song Exploderpodcast before Netflix gave him lavish settings in which to film his guests. The environment created eases the writers into revealing fascinating insights – as well as nerdy facts, for instance, REM’s Michael Stipe reveals the singalong line “that’s me in the spotlight” in ‘Losing My Religion’ was originally “that’s me in the kitchen”.
How to watch it: Netflix
What it’s about: “I want to show the world that street dance is fine art”. Lil Buck
Why to watch it: Netflix has an increasingly defined style to its documentary making – the lavish colour, the slo-mo shots, the dramatic music, the tearful parents. All are present and correct here. However, when covering subject matter previously under-served by the medium, it feels both celebratory and justified. Thus, Move is infectious in its scrutiny of modern dance. Also to be applauded is the wide-ranging selection of styles and settings selected. Dancehall, jooking, flamenco and more come under the spotlight, as the team travel from the USA to Spain, Bangladesh, Israel and Jamaica. A genuinely global art form, and recommended for anyone who has marvelled at great movers on the dancefloor.
How to watch it: Netflix
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes
What it’s about: The story of the seminal jazz label.
Why to watch it: Art before commerce. The best talent, both new and established. Impeccable artwork. Becoming a label that artists aspire to be on. Blue Note arguably created the template for every genre-defining independent label that would follow, from Motown to Hospital, Salsoul to Strictly Rhythm. This in depth dig covers Thelonius Monk, Herbie Hancock et al, while also highlighting Blue Note’s inescapable ties with hip hop. In terms of joining stylistic dots, there is also much here for deep house aficionados.
What it’s about: An in depth look at Nigeria’s fabled pioneer and activist.
Why to watch it: A funkiness and control of his supporting cast to match James Brown. Improvisation and experimentation on a par with Miles Davis. As groundbreaking and iconic as Bob Marley in terms of taking his patented musical form global. And on top of all that, a fearsome opponent of Nigeria’s authoritarian regimes, beaten and jailed for his opposition but never bowed. Oh, and he lived in a hippie style commune with an associated nightclub, and at one stage had 27 wives. Compelling viewing. A reminder that the Armonica and MoBlack re-working of Fela’s International Thief Thief (I.T.T.) is out now on Defected.
How to watch it: BBC iPlayer
What Happened, Miss Simone?
What it’s about: The life and times / ups and downs of one of the 20th century’s most under-appreciated, misunderstood talents.
Why to watch it: Denied her dream of being the first Black classical pianist to break through the race barrier, Simone turned to blues, jazz and soul, with her instantly recognisable baritone asmagnificent as her artistry at the keyboard. Perhaps her mastery of so many genres was a double -edged sword, preventing her from being taken to the heart of just one, as was the case with her contemporary and ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin. Her versatility also confused record labels – as such, she jumped from one to another, with mixed results, and collecting the ‘definitive Nina’ takes time and patience. Her commitment to the civil rights movement won admirers at the cost of record sales; her tempestuous relationship with her husband / manager was a mixed blessing. With considerable input from her daughter Lisa, this film has a worthy stab at contextualising all these strands – and highlights some jaw-dropping music.
How to watch it: Netflix
What it’s about: The stirring, unifying work of Rock Against Racism in ‘70s Britain.
Why to watch it: This is NOT a Clash movie! One of RAR’s founding principles was that every gig would see the bill sharedbetween black and white bands – Bob Marley’s ‘Punky Reggae Party’ made real. It documents how a truly grass roots movement harnessed the power of music to kick the fascist National Front off Britain’s streets. In the battle for the souls of the UK’s youth, the simple “black and white unite” rallying cry proved far more attractive than the racist clarion call of the far right. It’s not too big a stretch to say that, alongside 2 Tone, this helped pave the way for the inclusive nature of the early rave scene, many of whose instigators would have been impressionable teens and pre-teens as the RAR vs NF drama unfurled. Alas, change the clothes and the store fronts, and much of the footage is chillingly resonant of 2020. The battle is ongoing.
How to watch it: BBC iPlayer
What it’s about: Part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series dramatising the experiences of the UK’s Windrush generation
Why to watch it: British filmmaker McQueen was the first Black director to win an Oscar (for 12 Years a Slave), so his five-part anthology under the Small Axe banner comes with pedigree. Each drama is rooted in London’s West Indian community, and Lovers Rock is set in Ladbroke Grove in 1980 at one of its famed ‘blues parties’, a house party complete with sound system and entry fee. The “lovers rock” of the title was a relatively shortlived sub-genre of reggae, represented here by its biggest hit, Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ (the song’s writer, Dennis Bovell, makes a cameo appearance). The soundtrack, which also takes in reggae and disco, is central to a programme light on dialogue and heavy on mood – often euphoric, in contrast to Small Axe’s other more politically charged instalments. The racism of the time is present though subtly understated. Hugely evocative.
Two of these films are joyful, charting the storied careers of much-loved, risk-taking acts. By contrast, the other two are cautionary tales detailing the struggles of artists for whom success sat heavy on their shoulders.
Daft Punk Unchained
What it’s about: Lots of people talking about Daft Punk – except Daft Punk themselves, barring some fleeting ancient clips.
Why to watch it: They are masters at not only creating but also sustaining an air of mystery, Thomas and Guy-man. A documentary where friends, collaborators and ‘celebrities’ wax lyrical about you, re-telling some well-worn tales but also letting slip a few previously unheard ones, only serves to stoke the fire. Why take part yourself? From the meaning of the Beatles’ lyrics in their psychedelic phase to Prince’s alleged basement full of unreleased master tapes, many an artist has allowed, maybe encouraged, alternative realities to mount up around and add to their mythical status. Perhaps only Daft Punk have so manipulated it as a career-defining strategy. With or without them, it’s an entertaining 90 minutes.
How to watch it: Sorry folks – after giving it the big build up, in true Daft Punk style, it appears this film is currently impossible to track down (a French TV production, it also appeared on BBC in the UK, Showtime in the US, and had a stint on Netflix). Another addition to the DP mythology – but surely in time it will reappear?
Long Hot Summers: The Style Council
What it’s about: PaulWeller, the world’s most famous mod, pushes the boundaries.
Why to watch it: Central to the mod aesthetic is looking sharp and dancing to soul music. Thus Weller, barely 24, opted to free himself from the creative shackles of The Jam at their chart-topping peak, and go on an ‘80s adventure where he aimed to redefine modernism into a contemporary force without a parka in sight. That he succeeded more often than not is testament to the creativity and stubbornness that bonded Weller, keyboard maestro Mick Talbot, soul singer Dee C Lee, drumming prodigy Steve White, and their extended family of jazz musicians, film makers and stylists. Their swansong? A cover version of Joe Smooth’s ‘Promised Land’, delivering a ‘house’ album that was rejected by a bemused record label, and watching fans walk out of an Albert Hall showcase gig. Now that’s what you call Modernism.
How to watch it: Sky Arts
Whitney Houston: Can I Be Me/ Amy
Year: 2017/ 2015
What they’re about: Two artists for whom fame was not a friend.
Why to watch them: Being an artist is a calling, but that doesn’t guarantee an easy ride – on the contrary, it can be a challenging, lonely journey. Add in a level of fame that you neither asked for, or feel equipped to handle, and it’s easy to go off the rails. 2020 sees the world teetering on the brink of a global mental health crisis. Many of those working in the creative sector have been and will continue to be affected, their previous routines, long-held goals and means of earning a living all in limbo, in the lap of the vaccine gods. We recommend you check out at least one of these films, even if they can be at times a harrowing watch.
Live music - remember that? Get these selections on repeat as we slowly, but hopefully surely, gear up for the return to normality.
Chemical Brothers: Don’t Think
What it’s about: Tom & Ed take their incendiary live show to Japan.
Why to watch it: The best live electronic music act ever? The case for the Chems is certainly strong, and this film forms a compelling part of their case. As the boys hunch almost sheepishly behind their banks of equipment, occasionally looking up with a knowing smile that says, “we’re about to blow your mind – again!”, the alternative heroes emerge as the band’s visual enabler (and director here) Adam Smith, on-set lighting man Ricardo Lorenzi, and all involved in the spectacular sights that enhance the music so vividly. If you’ve not been lucky enough to experience the show live, or have done so but want a repeat dose, check this over a TV re-run of a Glastonbury set any day.
How to watch it: Vimeo
LCD Soundsystem: Shut Up & Play the Hits
What it’s about: Cult New Yorkers’ farewell show at Madison Square Gardens.
Why to watch it: Ok, so they later reformed, somewhat undermining the movie’s strapline, “if you’re going to have a funeral, make it the best funeral ever”. However, this remains a fascinating insight into how an artist can stay true to their artistic principles, continue to push boundaries – and still find a huge audience. They do indeed play the hits, but LCD wouldn’t be LCD if they released a straight concert film. So, the music is intercut with James Murphy on “the day after the show”, walking his dog and wondering what comes next. With the benefit of hindsight, we know it was a 2018 reformation and back on the treadmill.
How to watch it: Amazon / Vimeo
Aretha Franklin: Amazing Grace
What it’s about: A stirring 1972 performance from the inimitable Queen of Soul rescued from the vaults and lovingly restored.
Why to watch it: Filmed to promote her best-selling gospel album and cash in on the then new-found market for music movies, employing Oscar winning director Sidney Pollack proved to be blunder rather than masterstroke, as he made basic technical errors that made it impossible to synch the sound and visuals – until 21st century digital technology allowed producer Alan Elliott to do just that. Even then, Aretha had issues with the results seeing the light of day, and it was only after her passing in 2018 that her estate gave their blessing. Thank goodness – if you like soul music, this is as good as it gets.
How to watch it: Amazon / You Tube / Google Play
Prince: Sign o’ the Times
What it’s about: One of the all-time greats caught live at one of his creative peaks.
Why to watch it: Unlike the much-vaunted Purple Rain or much-slated Under the Cherry Moon, this is a straight concert movie –almost. The Purple One (though lest we forget, this was his “peach & black” phase) can’t resist splicing in some dramatic vignettes (arguably unnecessary). Prince’s thunder is matched, some even say stolen, by powerhouse drummer and some-time co-vocalist Sheila E. Finally available to stream.