Art & Culture

Rock the Doc: Thinking music, watching film

Rock the Doc: Thinking music, watching film

With so many live music shows on hold since the shelter-in-place began, watching old videos, full-length musicals and documentaries is a great way to add diversity to my entertainment choices. That was especially true when Showtime broadcast the SIP premiere Go-Go’s documentary on July 31. 

Beyond conjuring up magic memories from my younger years, getting inside the heads of the five female members of the Go-Gos band, sharing laughs and rocking out with millions of other music fans across the nation (virtually, of course); this energetic celluloid gem reminded me of other fantastic music documentaries I’ve watched in the past. Here is a short list of music documentaries to seek out via Netflix or other online media sources to enjoy during #SIP2020 or anytime.

Athens, GA: Inside/Out (1987)

This fantastic film follows the rise of influential bands including the B-52s, R.E.M., Flat Duo Jets and other talented artists that came out of the small college town of Athens in the “Peach State” of Georgia. I originally saw this documentary in the big barn at Hog Island Oyster Company in Tomales back in 1989. Beyond watching VHS recordings of live concert performances by famous bands back in my teen years, this was the music film that really moved me and made me respect that sowing seeds with college music can create bands that are still relevant today.

Sound City (2013)

As an ode to the mastery of music and sound, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters makes his directorial debut in this marvelous, thought-provoking movie focused on the legend of Sound City Studio in the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles. From its humble beginning in 1969, the studio has been credited with producing and recording some of the greatest albums of all time. With Grohl as the narrator and guide, a steady stream of other noteworthy musicians who have all recorded albums in this legendary studio—including members of Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCarthy and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails—give great insight into music. Although commercial recordings sadly ceased in 2011, the impact of this documentary led to the re-opening of this holy shrine of music in 2017. 

A Shot of Whisky (2015)

“Everybody wants to say they played there,” says guitarist Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, one of the many bands featured in this brilliant chronology of five decades of music at the legendary Whisky a Go Go club on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. After setting the trend for the short-skirt, go-go dance craze when the doors to this small, intimate 500-person club opened on Jan. 16, 1964, the venue quickly became the launching pad for Jim Morrison and the Doors (the opening band for lead acts in 1966), Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Birds, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, the Stooges and other great rock bands in the 1970s. The music genres went from punk to ska, and heavy metal to the alternative styles of music that are currently hot today. It is particularly wonderful to follow the progression of these music trends through the eyes of Elmer Valentine, the co-founder of this famed venue, which was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

The Go-Go’s (2020)

From playing at dive bars on the West Coast to performing at Madison Square Gardens in New York City after the Go-Go’s debut LP Beauty and the Beat reigned at the top of the charts for six straight weeks in 1982, this fabulous film, directed by Alison Ellwood (who also did the music docs, Laurel Canyon and History of The Eagles), details how this talented female group rose from the LA punk scene in the early 1980s to become the first multi-platinum selling, all-female band to play their own instruments and write their own catchy hit songs, soaring to #1 on the album charts. The end result is a magical balance of great music, stimulating conversation, and the real story behind one of the most successful female rock groups of all time. Also worth noting: the group’s new single, “Club Zero,” debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard charts in the first week after it was released—the same day the documentary premiered on July 31. Go-Go team, go. 

Biography: I Want My MTV (2019)

On Aug. 1, 1981, a powerful force that connected all these bands, directly or indirectly, was born when MTV became the first cable network focused on music. The original concept was the brainchild of Michael Nesmith, who was previously best known as the guitarist for the Monkees, a television comedy series that ran from 1966 to 1968. Inspired by the innovative videos made for The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, Help and Magical Mystery Tour albums in the mid-1970s: Nesmith made his first video for his small hit “Rio” in 1976 and later teamed up with Warner Communications to developed a cutting-edge promotional project called “PopClips,” which was the first of its kind in America. 

After Nesmith and MTV co-creators John Lack and Robert T. Pittman sold the concept to Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment in December of 1980, the early goal of the channel was pumping rock and roll music into households across the nation, all day and all night. As Lack explains in the opening sequence for this fantastic documentary, co-directed by Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop: “Besides sports and sex, there’s nothing that brought us together like music.” Challenge on. 

Working with a minimal budget meant the team needed to be creative. While collecting content, they hired a colorful set of young, perky, angst-driven VJs (video jockies): Martha Quinn, Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, J.J. Jackson and Alan Hunter. For art, they developed the iconic MTV logo out of cardboard cuttings destined for the trash, and acquired images of a rocket lifting off and an astronaut staking a flag on the moon from the NASA public-domain website. As a statement song to mark the official beginning, the first track they played was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. 

At the time, music videos were at a primal stage of development in the United States, which meant most of the early programming featured bands playing songs in studio or live on stage. That changed rapidly when the second coming of the “British Invasion,” led by a new wave of polished videos from England that were crafted by talented directors, stylists and make-up artists, powered MTV’s first phase of success. This exciting period included a wide range of colorful, provocative and thought-provoking images wrapped around catchy songs performed by bands including Duran Duran, A-Ha, Flock of Seagulls, Bananarama and the Culture Club from the UK, and Men at Work, INXS and Midnight Oil from Australia. 

To broaden the audience, MTV hired ex–Atlantic Records executive Les Garland, whose close contacts with global rock stars such as Mick Jagger, Peter Townsend, David Bowie, The Police and Pat Benatar led to a series of memorable clips with the famous tagline “I want my MTV.”  In doing so, the name “MTV” went viral before viral was even a common word, and the demand for the cable station skyrocketed across the nation. 

In 1984, a new wave of music styles emerged from this success. They included sexy videos from Wham, Madonna, Prince and Chris Isaak; artistic renderings of classic rock songs from Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top, Tom Pretty & The Heartbreakers, Heart, Journey and the rebirth of Roy Orbison; instant hits from movie soundtracks;  variations of the heavy metal sounds of Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard; and even Quiet Riot’s cover of the English rock band Slade’s 1973 hit “Cum On Feel the Noize.”On the topic of #BlackLivesMatter, the film also discusses the controversy surrounding the station’s hesitation to merge Black artists and R&B with rock music. This eventually led to the momentous “World Premiere” of Michael Jackson’s dazzling video for his single “Billy Jean,” which set the stage for the success rap, hip-hop, jazz-rock fusion with Herbie Hancock, and the network’s highest rated show, Yo! MTV Raps, hosted by Fab five Freddie, Ed Lover and Dr. Dré. All in all, this is an amazing documentary that provides insight into one of the greatest musical experiments of all times, which  lives on in many different forms today.

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