Docs that Rock

Concert films, save for a handful of exceptions, are a bore -- the equivalent of a wish-you-were-here postcard that taunts you with glimpses of what you missed by choosing to avoid the crushing crowds, cigarette smoke, and flicked Bics. Which is why the recently released, and just as quickly closed, Jay-Z doc Fade to Black was such a dud: Its concert sequences never worked up a sweat, never amounted to anything more than a glitzy-glammy whoop-dee-do infomercial. Its best moments were the shaky-cam interludes between performances, as Jay-Z bounced from studio to studio, producer to producer, in search of beats he could borrow for his Black Album. Sometimes it is more interesting to see the sausage made than to digest the final product, after all.

This has been a particularly wonderful year for engaging, entertaining documentaries about musicians -- those who fill the arenas with their monster-truck roars (Metallica), those who influenced generations without making fortunes (the Ramones), and those whose egos fill clubs that often go wanting for patrons whenever they play (Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols). There was even one starring the Grateful Dead and the simply dead: Festival Express, made in 1970 and released 34 years later, long after the footage and audio was believed missing and buried along with Janis Joplin, Rick Danko, Jerry Garcia, Richard Manuel, and others who boarded that Canadian train that derailed somewhere between Toronto and the cineplex.

Another doc acted as a different kind of tombstone for a bygone era: Shortly after the release of End of the Century, Johnny Ramone died after a five-year battle with prostate cancer, leaving drummer Tommy Ramone as the last of the living Ramones (there were other drummers, none as essential). End of the Century, then, marked the last time Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy would assemble to recall the ups and downs and downers of a career spent making noise off which so many would make so many millions.

Nobody in Metallica is dead yet (well, Cliff Burton, but that was a long time ago), but the band came close to winding up on the extinct list before going into therapy to work through some issues, chief among them James Hetfield's penchant for booze and his refusal to have a heart-to-heart with pal Lars Ulrich, who apparently was sired by a Lord of the Rings extra. The chronicle of that experience, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, coulda been gooey -- whose heart breaks for multimillionaires who tend to whine? -- but wound up an essential portrait of a band at work while working it out.

The stars of Dig!, Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe and Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor, probably wouldn't go in for a little head-shrinking but sure as hell could use it, even after their rise turns into a protracted fall. Someone oughta make an album about them.

 
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