For many years, the music documentary was a rare beast. When a sighting was reported, eager fans would gather together round small, low definition screens ready to be either wowed or crestfallen. The pressure was on the doc teams to deliver, despite the fact that more often than not their budget was paltry, and half the footage they were after had been accidentally deleted. The proliferation of new TV channels through the 1990s saw more commissions, but if anything, budgets were even smaller. Enter stage left the talking heads – can’t afford the trip to New Orleans to speak to the artist you’re supposed to be documenting? Why not get a TV chef on who thinks he might own one of their albums? In the 21stcentury, of course, fan-filmed footage can go viral in minutes. Documentaries are literally being made as a new scene is born and defined; sometimes they are commissioned upfront as part of a marketing strategy. We’ve ploughed through grainy YouTube videos, and tolerated the aforementioned talking heads, to help you narrow things down a bit.
In the beginning there was jack…
It is obligatory for any documentary purporting to document the history of house music to open with these words. Then one day, while viciously throwing down on his box, the producer boldly declared “get me Marshall Jefferson – or failing that, a C list comedian who once went to Angels in Burnley before it became a multi-storey car park.” One of the most recent attempts to make a defining film about the birth of house music was I Was There When House Took Over the World (2017), commissioned by the UK’s Channel 4, generally a safe bet when it comes to all things cultural. Yes, they do speak to Marshall Jefferson – and the talking heads selection as a whole is top notch. Highly recommended – these trailers will whet your appetite. Still available via Channel 4’s All 4 service.
Taking a completely different tack, in 2019 Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller gave us Everybody in the Place: an Incomplete History of Britain 1984-92. As Deller told The Guardian, he deliberately eschewed “the standard BBC Four documentary where it’s middle-aged men talking with their record collections behind them, then some unattributed archive and a voiceover”. Deller digs deeper, giving long overdue respect to the DIY scenes all over small town Britain. And his trump card? Showing the film to a class of 18 year old Londoners, who are by turns fascinated and bemused. Hopefully available on a streaming service near you soon – here’s a trailer; if you want to dive in, below is an unofficial YouTube upload with the usual issues that entails (allow us to save you a Shazam – the monster rave cut in the trailer is ‘Techno Trance’ by Belgians D-Shake).
What We Started – 2017 Netflix documentary that compares and contrasts the ‘then and now’ of dance music, most notably the chasm between Carl Cox detailing his near 40 years on the scene and EDM ‘overnight sensation’ Martin Garrix.
Can You Feel It (How Dance Music Conquered the World)*– 2018 BBC 4 three parter. From Detroit’s techno-inventing Belleville 3 to EDM poster boys Tiesto & Aoki, it’s comprehensive, but lacks the guile of I Was Thereand Everybody in the Place.
Pump Up The Volume*– Worth checking if you can put up with the overload of Chicago skyline shots and a voice over from Louis Mellis, who sounds like the stereotypical hardbitten Scottish cop beloved of TV dramas, normally seen in the opening shot gravely announcing “there’s been a murrr-der.”
(*not currently available to stream – can be found on YouTube, quality varies and in some cases with silent periods where the internet police have taken a track down for copyright infringement)
…yet before jack there was disco
While disco generally gets rightful respect in the opening salvos of the better house music documentaries, arguably it has been under-served with its own exclusive studies. As we detailed in our ‘lockdown reads’ feature, the 21stcentury has seen a long overdue re-evaluation of the genre, but this has not been as noticeable on screen as it has in print. Too often, the focus remains on sequinned suits and Saturday Night Fever. Here are some more considered disco ruminations.
For some, Studio 54, with its craven desire to engage with celebrities, missed the point of the scene that parties such as The Loft and The Gallery had been nurturing. Equally, many argue it remained “a haven for inclusion and acceptance.” Arguably, as the first disco-soundtracked club to put its head above the underground parapet and blink in the mainstream sun, it was there to be shot at. Judge for yourself by watching this documentary – if nothing else, it’s a gripping drama. Trailer here, streaming on Netflix.
“We were on the cutting edge without realising it.'' By way of contrast, Godfather of Disco really is all about the music and the scene. The Godfather in question is Mel Cheren, prime mover behind both a pivotal club, The Paradise Garage; and a seminal record label, West End. Check the trailer, and if you like what you see, one of the co-directors has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube.
“For the uninitiated it is a revelation, for the aficionados it will surely be a special treat.''So ran the LA Times review of the Larry Levan / Paradise Garage feature Maestro, which sees a who’s who of New York music legends explain why DJ and club were both so influential. Here’s the trailer. The main film has recently been uploaded onto YouTube. Copies of the original two-disc DVD set (disc two has bonus treats) can be found, but they’re not cheap.
Six of the best available documentaries charting the careers and continuing influence of six icons from different areas of black music:
BBC documentary about the recently deceased 1970s soul great Bill Withers, the man behind ‘Lean On Me’, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, ‘Lovely Day’ and many more. Withers stood out from the crowd not only as a unique performer, his brand of soul more folk than funk; but also as someone who chose to retire relatively young, and never regretted it, as the latter day interviews show. An intimate portrait of a lovely man.
Mr. Dynamite: the Rise of James Brown
In depth documentary about the self-styled hardest working man in showbusiness, funk godfather James Brown. Directed by the acclaimed Alex Gibney, and produced by Mick Jagger (who stole many a dance move from JB), it’s a comprehensive overview with classic footage. Recommended. Trailer below, streaming on Amazon.
In 2018, Quincy Jones gave two astonishingly candid interviews, both of which quickly went viral, firstly with the Vulture website, and secondly with GQ magazine. Many were hoping for more of the same when Netflix announced its upcoming documentary, but some felt it failed to make the same impact. It remains an amazing, eminently watchable life story (still streaming - see trailer below), that does gives many a glimpse into what drove him on to greatness: “You have to dream so big that you don’t get an ego, because you never fulfil those dreams.”
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
A larger than life figure, one can only imagine that preparing to document Ms Jones must be quite a daunting prospect. Director Sophie Fiennes opts to search for the human being behind the iconic image, following her over an extended period of time – in the studio, on tour, back in Jamaica with family members. There are no endless talking heads and voiceovers, a welcome move; equally, no historical footage features – a huge disappointment if you switched on expecting the definitive ‘Grace Guide’. The (then) contemporary live footage still dazzles though. Movie magazine Empire concludes:“For all the moments of candour...the impression left is still of that inscrutable, mercurial individual, the mask still firmly in place. Which, you suspect, is just how Grace wants it.” Trailer below, streaming on Amazon.
“As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment, music has to be for revolution.” With his band Africa 70, Fela Kuti invented afro beat with its wild mix of soul, jazz, funk and Africa’s indigenous sounds and rhythms. However, in addition to being a musical visionary, he was also a political activist, a constant thorn in the side of the Nigerian establishment. Oscar winning director Alex Gibney (see James Brown doc made this film, a winning combination of archive footage and well selected interviewees. Trailer below; streaming on various channels for a rental fee).
Public Enemy: Prophets of Rage
Yeaaaah boyeeee! This 2012 BBC documentary talks to all the main players in the incendiary PE story, and makes a gripping hour-long watch. Available on YouTube.
The Defiant Ones
Widely acclaimed as one of the best music documentaries ever made, this mini-series has a frankly insane story at its heart – a giant of the rock world and a colossus of hip hop form a highly unlikely partnership, and wind up striking a ridiculously lucrative deal with one of the world’s most famous brand names. The central players are Jimmy Iovine - record company uber-executive with Springsteen and Bono on speed dial; and Dr. Dre, NWA founding member and rap’s number one producer. The links? Dre’s label Death Row Records, which linked up with Iovine; and Dre’s protégé Eminem, signed to Iovine’s Interscope. Together the two launched the Beats by Dreheadphones, and the rest (including their deal with Apple) is history. Trailer below, streaming on Netflix.
20 Feet from Stardom
Backing vocalists – the unsung heroes of so much wonderful music. This film finally shone the spotlight on them, and was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2014. The inspirational singers here taking a lead role for once include Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Jo Lawry and more - we salute you. Trailer below, streaming on Netflix.
Paris is Burning
For many, a gateway to the captivating but previously unseen world of ballroom. Jennie Livingstone’s 1990 documentary is essential viewing, but not without controversy, mostly centred on the relative lack of renumeration for those who took part; and whether a white, cisgender woman was best placed to document a primarily black, transgender lifestyle. However, it remains compelling viewing, especially for those whose interest in the history of ballroom has been piqued by TV shows like Poseand artists like Kiddy Smile. Trailer below, streaming on Netflix.
Desert Island Discs style, imagine you are invited to choose just seven tunes that you can have with you during lockdown. Hands up how many of you would include ‘Unfinished Sympathy’? We thought so. Have you ever wondered who was behind those majestic strings? Is the irresistible ‘hey hey hey heeeey’ hook a sample, or singer Shara Nelson? Talking of samples, where are the breaks from? Watch Ski Oakenfull from Point Blank Music School break the whole thing down for you.
Around the world
Northern Disco Lightsis subtitled The Rise and Rise of Norwegian Dance Music. It features amongst others Prins Thomas, Lindstrom and Todd Terje, and highlights the unique circumstances that have helped define and drive the Norwegian scene.
The Sound of Belgium traces the nation’s dance music from Popcorn via Electronic Body Music and New Beat to its role as a rave scene main player and ongoing producer of house and techno. Try the trailer here. then watch on YouTube below (please note, no subtitles); or sign up to Vimeo for the ‘Director’s Cut’.
Italo Disco Legacy tells the story of the country’s electronic take on the disco sound, and its enduring global influence. Check the trailer, sign up to view the full film on Vimeo.
Rave & Resistance is a documentary from Red Bull that charts the Johannesburg club scene of the 1990s, as South Africa adapts to being a post-apartheid nation and began to pave the way for the vibrant scene it enjoys today.
Unsurprisingly, there have been many attempts to document what makes Ibiza unique. Equally unsurprisingly, the results can be hit and miss. Let us share with you two features with very different stories to tell.
A Short Film About Chilling was commissioned by the UK’s Channel 4 in 1990 – after the initial wave of international interest generated by Ibiza’s influence on the acid house scene and the often ham-fisted attempts to define ‘balearic’; but before the ‘superclub brands’ and ‘superstar DJs’ took residence. A motley crew of forward-thinking promoters, bands and DJs from all over the UK (the beginnings of what later became known as the ‘Balearic network’) spent a week in Ibiza, and got filmed. When broadcast in the graveyard slot, it got unexpectedly large viewing figures, and was hugely influential on many a future clubland mover and shaker.
By contrast, Space 27 is the kind of slick documentary you would expect from a major player in modern-day Ibiza. It’s produced in-house by the former superclub themselves on closing in 2016, so don’t expect warts’n’all – instead, revel in the memories of a much loved / missed clubbing institution.
Kraftwerk: Pop Art
Are Kraftwerk to electronic music what the Beatles are to rock? Without Kraftwerk, would we even have house, techno, electro, synth pop? These questions can only ever be rhetorical, but it's safe to say the band's influence on the musical landscape of the past 40 years is nothing short of phenomenal. Their first UK TV appearance wasn't even on a music show, but rather on a science one, aptly titled Tomorrow's World. Our 'main feature' also comes from the BBC - 2013's Pop Art documentary mixes old footage with exclusive access to Kraftwerk's sold out run of shows at London's Tate Gallery. Contributors include Krautrock pioneer Holgar Czukay of Can; disco / house legend Francois Kervorkian; and techno innovator Derrick May.
Completing our globetrot, Resident Advisor’s Real Scenesseries regularly turns a documentary spotlight on what it refers to as “electronic music’s key destinations.” Plenty of good viewing to be found here.