For my last set of reviews I wrote about some heavy, in-depth, serious documentaries, on topics ranging from Enron to the electric car to the 9/11 attacks to the United States war machine.
After that self-prescribed cinematic downer I decided it was time to view something lighter: some music documentaries. These ranged from concert films to one about a Los Angeles music legend (The Mayor of Sunset Strip) to a moving film about students dancing (Mad Hot Ballroom). I will write about those last two in a separate piece later in the week so that today I can focus on three music concert films.
Down From the Mountain – As good as O Brother, Where Art Thou? was, the soundtrack was better. If only there was a way for those who sang on the soundtrack to have their own concert, which would be filmed and released as a separate film. That is exactly what this film is. Though less well known than O Brother, Where Art Thou? this concert – and separate audio CD – is quite entertaining.
It features performances from two of my favorite female singers, Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, as well as some good bluegrass music from Ralph Stanley and John Hartford.
Heart of Gold – I have a friend who talks about Neil Young as if he is some sort of a musical god. I didn’t see it myself, at least not until recently. I have always had high regard for Young’s integrity and his music, especially his lyrics. As a writer I tend to pay more attention to lyrics than music and his lyrics are always good. But, still, Pearl Jam, Fugazi, and Bob Dylan also have great lyrics and integrity, but that doesn’t mean I’ll go buy their albums.
What changed my mind about Neil Young was watching this concert film. He is not just entertaining but engrossing, humble, modest, funny, and moving. The songs performed, most with a band but a few with him solo, range from the silly to the incredibly sad to the powerful and poignant. His concise comments between songs, often to explain what a song is about or what inspired the song, serve as perfect primers for people coming late to the worshipping-Neil-Young train as we understood more about what specific songs really mean.
Whether you love Neil Young or are just curious about his appeal, check out this movie. It was directed by Jonathan Demme.
Storefront Hitchcock – This concert film was a disappointment on several levels. First, since it was directed by Jonathan Demme in between the classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense and Heart of Gold, I thought he could do no wrong when it comes to concert films. I’ve now been proven mistaken on that count and that saddens me.
Second, Robyn Hitchcock is one of the most unusual but fascinating songwriters around so it doesn’t take much to make one of his concerts entertaining. Perhaps that is why Demme decided to go for the minimalist approach on this film – with no DVD extras, no shots of anything but Hitchcock, sometimes joined by other musicians, performing.
Keeping the camera just on Hitchcock was a mistake because if you eventually get bored with Hitchcock’s songs and well-known in between song banter, often more interesting than the song itself, the viewer may start to lose interest. In that case the only other thing to watch for is people staring into the storefront in which Hitchcock is playing (hence the film's name). But even watching people staring in at the concert that you yourself are watching – a trippy idea even when free of alcohol and drugs – does get boring after a while.
Within the next week I plan to write up reviews of some non-concert documentaries I have recently viewed. The reviews will be on topics as varied as Jonestown, the Weather Underground, and the two I mentioned earlier.
As I have watched those documentaries, as well as these three, I have been giving thought to what it is that connects the documentaries that I like and enjoy the most. This is obviously subjective, but I think the common thread among my favorite documentaries is having the directors treating those in the movie in an empathetic, not sympathetic, way.
Two of my favorite music documentaries – I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster – also share that characteristic of empathy and are also worth watching.
A good documentary engross and captivate one for two hours about something in which you really have very limited interest. I’m not a Metallica fan but I watched, engrossed and fascinated, the movie about Metallica. The same could be said of some other great documentaries.
Take, for example, two of the highest-grossing documentaries, Hoop Dreams and Spellbound. I’m not a basketball fan, nor good at spelling bees, but that did not matter; the movies were fascinating because of the people in the movie, regardless of the context.
This is not to say there is only one way to make a movie or that the movies of Errol Morris, for example, are not often brilliant. I am just pointing out that if you share this interest, this zest, for movies with empathy then we are on the same page and you will probably like some of the same movies I’m recommending.
Among these three documentaries I’ve reviewed today, Down From the Mountain and Heart of Gold have what I’m calling humanizing factors, mostly during the DVD extras where the director shows some of the musicians just talking and living a normal life. If you rent these movies definitely watch the extras because you will come away with added appreciation for these musicians.
Off-stage, Emmylou Harris, for example, stops mid-song or mid-conversation to check baseball scores. Musician friends of Neil Young talk frankly about their relationship with him and his devotion and attitude toward his art.
Ironically, the person least “humanized” in these films is the one who has a whole film about himself, namely Robyn Hitchcock. If I wanted to just see what he is like in concert I could have done so. Heck I did see him open for REM about a decade ago.
But I believe a concert movie should do more than just show the concert – it should also let the viewer know what the person is like off-stage, be it through talking to the musician or – at a minimum – talking to other musicians who work with him. This had none of that and disappointed me.