Documentaries! Who doesn’t love them? In general, I don’t. It takes a lot to get me to sit down and watch a documentary of my own volition… usually the involvement of Werner Herzog, but sometimes extenuating circumstances force your participation and you simply have no choice. With school currently out of the way and the fact that I haven’t tried to impress any girls in years, you might wonder how I could possibly get forced into watching anything. To you I say: “Don’t worry about it.”
The important thing for right now is not why I recently watched three music documentaries, it’s that I watched three music documentaries. Each one focused on a different facet of the history of rock and roll, but each had one thing in common (other than appearing on Region 1 DVDs): they were about the unsung stars of the music industry, the backup instrumentalists and vocalists, the producers and mixers, the recordists, etc. And yes, one of them was recent Oscar-winner 20 Feet from Stardom.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
That title might come off as a little too creative, masking the film’s true topic behind layers of artistic flash and tone-setting imagery: it’s, uh, it’s about Motown musicians and where they are now. Didn’t see that one coming. The great accomplishment of this film is its intercutting of interviews with live performances of familiar songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Little Richard, and countless others. The recording studios of Motown were a musical powerhouse for the inception of the rock and roll industry. Interesting, informative, and occasionally technical, Standing in the Shadows of Motown achieves its goal of pulling attention on those musicians who backed up the stars and played on all those great tracks without receiving any credit, whose names are currently only known by serious music lovers. Unfortunately, the movie was also geared towards serious music lovers, and not casual documentary-viewers, so I’m not exactly sure how much most people would get out of it, or if they could stay invested. The film falls into a pattern of “Here’s a great musician you didn’t know about, here he is in the 60s playing a song you know, and here he is now playing a song you know.” Repeat as necessary until every instrument has been covered. Sad as it sounds, this approach gets a little redundant, and at two hours it feels overlong. Still, anyone interested in this time period and this music should check it out.
20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Hey, what’s the best backup vocal part in rock history? I’m sure a lot of different people have a lot of different answers, but it’s gotta be “Gimme Shelter”, right? Especially that incredible “rape, murder” bit. That blows my mind every time. Do yourself a favor and watch the clip I’ve posted below.
Pretty neat, huh? 20 Feet from Stardom focuses on the backup singers who have the flavor to rock tracks by the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sting, and others. And really, when you listen to something like “Gimme Shelter” or “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” and try to imagine what they’d have sounded like without the backup singers, it’s just not as good. This documentary does a great job of hammering that point home, mixing interviews with the singers and performances with interviews with the actual celebrities, all of whom say the same thing, “We couldn’t have done it without them.” The filmmakers do get sidetracked for a few painful minutes listening to vocal improv jazz, which is… just so not my cup of tea, but is certainly worth the viewing for all music lovers.
Muscle Shoals (2013)
“Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, and they’ve been known for a song or two.” I never understood that line from, you know, that one really famous song about the South. This documentary cleared it up rather nicely, among other things. Unfamiliar with Muscle Shoals? I was. That’s because it’s a piddly little backwoods nowhere in the middle of Alabama. It became, through the sheer force of will and determination of a few hillbillies who dreamt of greatness and lived painfully tragic lives, one of the greatest hit-making powers of the world, attracting everyone from the Rolling Stones, U2, and Lynyrd Skynyrd to Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Wilson Pickett. The film itself strikes the perfect balance between the personal tragedies of the men who created the Muscle Shoals music scene (later collectively nicknamed the Swampers) and the wonderful things they accomplished. Muscle Shoals suffers from none of the drawbacks of the other two documentaries, never slipping into repetition or demanding that you remember the names of everyone who crosses over the screen, but instead committing to its human story the way all good movies should.
I think the reason I tend not to watch documentaries is because they usually lack character. Not Muscle Shoals, and that’s what makes it the best of the lot. Interested in music and for some reason want to watch a documentary? Check it out.