Our latest docu-round up takes in Covid’s effects on clubland; unsung music pioneers of 1970s/80s Britain; an all-time great vocalist; and a ‘see it to believe it’ life story.

Is staying in really the new going out? Maybe not by sheer necessity as it was during peak lockdown, but for many, the homespun alternatives we have created for ourselves since the spring still seem preferable to the ‘going out lite’ options currently on offer. Maximum respect to those finding ways to put on genuinely innovative and uplifting events, but these remain few in number, and don’t fill the diaries in the manner to which we were accustomed in the olden days (2019). When we ran our initial lockdown list of must see music documentaries, we found we had struck a chord. We also discovered a seemingly never ending well of watchable music & culture TV. So by popular demand came season two – and hot on its heels, we now proudly present season three. In all, this takes our grand total of recommended shows into the fifties!

Distant Dancefloors: COVID-19 and the electronic music industry 

Year: 2020

What it’s about: A half hour short produced by Pioneer DJ, essentially in four parts: the initial shock of clubland being locked down – creative responses to the situation from the dance music community (most notably the mushrooming of live streams) – how DJs and the creative industry have tried to use the shutdown positively – what might happen next?

Why to watch it: Most of those featured speak with both insight and positivity, exemplifying the hope so many have that whenever the time comes, we will witness a re-energised and re-focused scene. Expect a wide-ranging number of alternatives to be on offer when that day comes, given the number of often sharply contrasting views on offer here (for example, Blond:ish eulogising about streams and how central they will be to her world even when clubs open again, in sharp contrast to Honey Dijon’s view of them as “entertainment not culture”).

How to watch it: You Tube

See also: 

Reconnect: Digital Raving: many of us have tried ways to make streams a communal process – this ‘short’ on BBC i-Player follows one such escapade.

Rodney P’s Jazz Funk

Year: 2020

What it’s about: British youth has enjoyed a decades-long love affair with music of black origin sourced primarily from the USA. This documentary fronted by rapper Rodney P charts the impact of early ‘70s jazz funk, and how it gave birth to Brit Funk, the UK’s first truly homegrown black music scene.

Why to watch it: There are elements of this feature that may engender a sense of documentary déjà vu. Albeit with different tunes and hair styles, you will find the sharply dressed dancers (as per any mod documentary); the clued in clubbers and their touchstone DJs placing underground records into the pop charts (any Northern Soul documentary); the open-minded dancefloors that see no race, gender or sexuality divides (see disco / house / rave scene docs). The key difference here is that in documentary terms, this genuinely is the great untold story – the missing link. The 1970s saw two UK scenes running parallel, both inspired by the black American music of the day – a multi-racial crowd in inner city London and a white working class crowd in south east suburbia both dancing euphorically. Crucially, this would give rise to Brit Funk, the first black British sound to achieve serious commercial success despite the barriers it faced. It’s an inspirational story, and host Rodney P does a good job of demonstrating how the scene would spread its tentacles, be it showing Spandau Ballet utilising Beggar & Co’s horn section; interviewing a dancer / DJ like Carl Cox who would go on to help shape clubland for decades to come;  or drawing a direct line to Stormzy and Skepta. After initial broadcast, online debates began about which DJs, dancers and bands had / hadn’t featured – but the unanimous conclusion was that this was a much-needed film that crammed a lot into its 60 minutes.

How to watch it: on BBC iPlayer

See also: 

Everything - The Real Thing Story: while the Brit Funk pack were almost exclusively from London and its environs, in ‘70s Liverpool another group of talented, ambitious black Brits were breaking down barriers. This is a merited in-depth look at The Real Thing, the truly pioneering band responsible for classics such as ‘You To Me Are Everything’ and ‘Can You Feel the Force’. Also on iPlayer.

The Last Pirates: Britain’s Rebel DJs

Year: 2019

What it’s about: “Jazzie B’s an OBE, Norman Jay’s an MBE, and I’m an MBE.” Broadcasting and DJ legend Trevor Nelson is reflecting on the ”crazy”  journey he and his fellow 1980s London-based pirate radio DJs have taken, one story in this second Rodney P show on our list, which again tells a previously undocumented tale.

Why to watch it: 1960s offshore pirate radio and its influence has been well covered, 1980s inner city pirate radio and its seismic cultural impact less so – a wrong Rodney P aims to put right here. His focus is on the stations that emanated from London’s black music scene, but its tales of rooftop transmitters, DJs and their record collections tumbling out of makeshift studios in tiny rooms, and the ongoing battle with the Department of Trade & Industry was commonplace in many parts of the UK in Mrs Thatcher’s period in power. As is pointed out several times in the show, it is ironic how a department Thatcher wanted to encourage young entrepreneurs spent so much time trying to shut these particular ones down. Arguably, the battle to re-draw the radio landscape was ultimately won, and the many platforms on which 21st century DJs can broadcast has led to a golden age of radio - but to this day, pirates still play a vital role in pushing its boundaries.

How to watch it: BBC iPlayer

See also: 

Revolutions On Air: a very well put together Red Bull Music Academy short on “the golden era of New York radio 1980-88”.

Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me

Year: 2018

What it’s about: The legendary multi-platinum 1970s vocalist whose career was impacted by a car accident that left him paralysed.

Why to watch it: If you attend a Glitterbox party, it’s odds on at some point in the night, probably more than once, you’ll be singing along with Teddy. It might be any one of his Philly classics as lead singer with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (‘The Love I Lost’, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, ‘Bad Luck’, ‘Wake Up Everybody’); or maybe one of his solo smashes after he left the band and saw his own name in lights (‘You Can’t Hide From Yourself’, ‘The More I Get The More I Want’, ‘Love TKO’). It may be in remixed or sampled form (under which guise you may well find him at a Defected night too). Yet it was not until 2018 that the full story of this true great was told. Highly recommended.

How to watch it: Streaming on Amazon

See also: 

The Two Killings of Sam Cooke – a compelling insight into the tragically short life of the 1960s soul music great and civil rights activist whose death remains the subject of intense speculation. Available on Netflix.

The Black Godfather

Year: 2019

What it’s about: the life and times of Clarence Avant, summarised on his Wikipedia page as “an American music executive, entrepreneur, and film producer, who also goes by the name of ‘The Black Godfather’”. That does not come close to doing justice to his story.

Why to watch it: Every once in a while, you get a finely honed spoof ‘mockumentary’, where famous talking heads are in on the joke and agree to add fake gravitas to what is clearly a ridiculously far-fetched story. The Black Godfather fits that bill – except that when the talking heads include former US Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and a who’s who of black American superstars, it gradually dawns on you that Clarence Avant is real, and this exceptional  life / career actually exists. Variously described by contributors as “a badass and a legend”, “a mysterious figure that everyone respects”, and a “very incisive thinker”, Obama cites his understanding that “there are two types of power, the one that needs the spotlight and the one behind the scenes” as crucial to his success. Bill Withers simply praises his ability to “put people together.”

How to watch it: Streaming on Netflix

See also: 

A Life in Waves

Far removed from Clarence Avant in many ways, our link is the fact that its central character, Suzanne Ciani, is an influential figure who flew under most radars until this 2017 feature on her pioneering work as electronic music producer / composer. Available on YouTube.