Music Documentaries

Back from ‘Sights and Sounds’, a small but stimulating and enjoyable conference on music documentary in Salford. Films about music and musicians have been a major strand of documentary since the 1960s, so it’s odd, especially given the huge predominance of music in popular culture, that they’ve escaped systematic study, even among documentary scholars. This was therefore a pioneering event, and a lot of ground was covered.

It’s a subject in which I have a special interest, since this is the field that I entered at the start of the 1970s with two films I made for BBC2. (One of them looked at the ways musicians communicate with each other in rehearsal, when they can talk, and performance, when they can’t—it was called Watching Music; the other, called The Politics of Music, was about Pierre Boulez and his Roundhouse concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.) Accordingly, my own contribution (I’d been asked to give the opening address) was to take us back to where it all began in the 60s, with the contention that over the space of about ten years, all the major subgenres of the music documentary made their appearance one by one—from Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day and Koenig & Kroiter’s Lonely Boy about Paul Anka; by way of Ken Russell’s composer portraits of Elgar, Debussy and Delius, Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling, the first film of the Rolling Stones, and Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan portrait Don’t Look Back; to the first rock concert films like Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock and Gimme Shelter by the Maysles brothers. I argued that in the process, the musical object undergoes a transformation, or rather a series of transformations, which are strongly related to the changing functions of music within and across societies and cultures.

Julie Lobalzo Wright spoke about Woodstock and Gimme Shelter in more detail than I was able to, emphasising their opposing styles. David Sanjek looked at the unsuccessful and forgotten film Medicine Ball Caravan to examine the problematic relationship of music documentary to the music industry. Michael Hetra focussed on a couple of early examples of avant garde films of the 60s, Straub & Huillet’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, and Godard’s Weekend (although my own choice here would have been Sympathy for the Devil) which confirm the emergence of the music documentary as a quasi-genre by being, so to speak, anti-music documentaries. At any rate, they certainly don’t conform to what Frank Thomas Meyer in another paper called the unwritten law that the film-maker tends to look at the musician through the eyes of the fan, which might help to explain the scholarly neglect of the genre, since it would imply that music documentaries are often regarded as merely promotional and therefore unworthy of serious attention.

It’s true that many pop music documentaries have been made at the musician’s (or their manager’s) request, but even so, this should not become an excuse for ignoring their filmic qualities. Emile Wennekes, for example, speaking of Jimi Plays Berkeley, proposed that the camera has to respond to what happens in the course of performance in the same way that Hendrix’s sidemen have to respond to whatever he’s doing. I not only agree but would go further: since this occurs with any form of improvisation, it also speaks of one of the necessary qualities of all good observational filming.

Paul Long and Tim Wall provided a useful critique of Tony Palmer’s 1976 series on the history of popular music, All You Need Is Love, and Kevin Donnelly provided an enjoyable account of the visualised live album in British cinema of the 70s—a strand of films made for the cinema which came to an end with the crisis of the music industry at the end of the decade. Michael Saffle expanded the terms of reference by going back to Stokowski’s appearances in Hollywood movies of the late 30s, which provide useful material for the historical study of performance practices. There was a particularly interesting panel on Identity and Nationality: Argibel Euba Ugarte uncovered a couple of Swedish documentaries from 1963 about traditional Basque music; Jaume Radigales looked at a recent film called Rock & Cat which celebrated Catalan rock, which he suggested is an illusory category; while Karen Backstein introduced us to the riches of music documentaries in Brazil.

Apologies to anyone I haven’t mentioned, and many thanks to the organisers, Ben Halligan and David Sanjek, who will be editing a book on the subject drawing on the conference.

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One response to “Music Documentaries

  1. Peter Steven

    My favourite film scholar — Paddy Whannel — often talked about his home (and publife) in Putney.
    Thanks for the notes on music docs — I’ve been toying with teaching a course on docs using only music films, so this helps push the idea along.
    Cheers, Peter (Toronto)