Fictional accounts of music history received the most publicity in 2016, whether it was the incessant hype surrounding Netflix (NFLX)’s hip-hop origin story The Get Down, or HBO’s Vinyl, that magnificent flop of a series in Martin Scorcese and Mick Jagger’s tone-deaf and fact-blind account of the New York City music scene during the 1970s.
But make no mistake: in the end it was good, old-fashioned music documentaries that provided the most enjoyable and enriching examples of sonic celluloid this year, as our picks for the five best music documentary DVDs of 2016 attest.
5) Eat That Question – Frank Zappa In His Own Words (Sony Pictures Classics)
Constructed almost entirely of live footage, film clips and television appearances dating back to his public debut playing an amplified bicycle on The Steve Allen Show, Eat That Question is perhaps the most complete and uncompromising look into this most unique musical mind whose conservative politics and unorthodox performance ethics made him a man few dared to question.
But controlling the grip of his iron fist was a deep understanding and appreciation of music theory, which you can euphemistically observe on his face—with only weeks left before succumbing to prostate cancer in 1993—doing what he loved to do most: conducting an orchestra.
Regardless of where you stand in the painful battle over the family estate between the children of Frank and his wife Gail, who passed away in October of 2015, you can tell from the film that Ahmet and Diva commissioned that this was a gift of pure love with the intent on giving psychedelia’s greatest maestro the five-star documentary he so richly deserves.
4) Morphine – Journey Of Dreams (MVD Visual)
When it comes to Cambridge, Mass.-based low-rock trio Morphine, it really was a case of “you had to be there.” I’m talking about the 1990s, a time when a group comprised of a drummer, a saxophonist who switches between baritone and tenor and a frontman who played a two-string electric bass could become one of the hottest acts on MTV.
Culled from exclusive and archival interviews and sensational live footage, director Mark Shuman tells the complete story of Morphine on Journey Of Dreams, a tale that was cut way too short after Sandman suffered a heart attack onstage while performing at a festival in Rome on July 3, 1999 and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
Saxophonist Dana Colley and drummer Jerome Dupree continue to perform Morphine’s music—1992’s Cure For Pain, 1993’s Good, their 1997 masterpiece Like Swimming and incidental 2000 swan song The Night—under the name Vapors of Morphine. But to the band’s unshakable cult of fans, the definitive version of Morphine will always be when the late, great Sandman was manning the ship; the noir noise they made with that classic lineup remains at the heart of why their legend continues to endure.
3) A Poem is a Naked Person (The Criterion Collection)
For me, the candid 1967 mini-doc The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins is the highlight of Always For Pleasure, Criterion’s box set honoring the life and career of American documentarian Les Blank. That up-close-and-personal half-hour with the Texas blues giant serves as the spiritual basis for the late director’s freeform glimpse into the world of American pop icon Leon Russell, both in studio and on the road while promoting his third LP, in 1972’s A Poem Is A Naked Person.
Released earlier this year by Criterion for the first time ever in a commercial market, this is a quintessential visual accompaniment to the kind of power and passion Russell brought to the stage in the early ’70s.
The incorporation of such insightful extras as the newly produced documentary A Film’s Forty-Year Journey: The Making of “A Poem Is a Naked Person” and portions of a Q&A session from 2013 with Blank only add to the value of this long overdue liberation of one of the true lost treasures in rock ‘n’ roll cinema. And the experience of watching this film, particularly for the first time, is only compounded by the emotional weight of his passing in October, not to mention the news that he was planning on hitting the road again in January.
2) Time Stand Still (Zoe-Rounder)
I heard from a couple of diehard Rush friends that they were weeping at the end of this documentary. Chronicling the band’s final major tour after 40 years on the road, the emotional gravitas of this heartfelt documentary is palpable, especially in the candid way Lifeson, Peart and Lee express the mixed emotions they endured while deciding to retire the Rush brand.
“Will there ever be a relationship between a band and a fanbase that is so long-standing and powerful?” wonders comedian and avowed Rush fan Paul Rudd while narrating the film. “So many lives wrapped up in the work of three musicians.” Indeed the prospect of a world without a Rush tour to look forward to is quite foreign to me as well; I haven’t missed a Rush concert since Roll The Bones, and no amount of archival footage is going lessen the blow of living in a world without Rush.
1) Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years (Capitol/UMe)
Those screaming girls behind the chain link fences you see in images and film clips at Shea Stadium? My mom was one of them, and my visibly annoyed grandfather with ears full of cotton isn’t too far behind her.
She was there at both shows in ’65 and ’66, and the very little bit of time I got to speak with her about her experience (I really wish I got to talk to her more in-depth about it before she passed away after a valiant battle with bone cancer in 1999), she told me how she couldn’t even hear the music that was coming from those little amps on that massive stage set up over home plate above the literal wall of screaming females. But for her, it didn’t even matter; she was that close to John, Paul, George and Ringo.
The way they played that day, or even what they played wasn’t of much consequence to just be near them, even if it was from the upper deck of Shea, where I myself spent a modest portion of my 20s going to Mets games. But whenever I was there, I would always think of my mom and her role in that caterwauling chorus that greeted the Fabs every time they walked onto a stage during their touring years.
No one has captured this period better than Ron Howard in his fascinating documentary on the Beatles, Eight Days A Week.
Presenting the Beatles as a supernova of pop stardom compounded by countless hours on the road, and relentless adoration, Howard appreciates the toll it took on them as both a band, and individuals, as well. The duality of fan euphoria and band exasperation is poetic in a way that no other cinematic account of The Beatles has ever conveyed.
A strong reminder that what made the Beatles so great together was their ability to play as a unit, to lock in with one another to create their singular sound, seeing just how perfect they sounded on stage as a band in their touring years only adds more emphasis to the hole left in our world by their absence.