For most musicians, their songs and music is meant to stand alone, unsupported by additional commentary or personal controversy.
And for the staunchest believers in this concept, interviews are no place to give away secrets. As Kurt Cobain said, “It’s all in the music, man.”
Songwriters like Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain perfected the obscuration of the meaning to their songs. With journalists hounding for any trace origin in their intricate tunes, both refused to let the dark cloud of lyrical ambiguity arise from the public’s heads. Dylan even used the endless questions to parody the press in “The Ballad of a Thin Man.”
So, if the artist is not cooperating, where is one to turn for the background of cherished songs?
Unless you’re some kind of Apple scruff, watching music documentaries is the easiest way to bridge your mind with that of a famous musician. And I should clarify, I don’t mean documentaries that cast look-alikes, but rather actual footage of musicians in their prime. Sure, movies like The Doors and Notorious are entertaining, but their poetic license act as no substitute for reality.
Last Monday I ventured to the Athena to watch the new Ron Howard film Eight Days A Week, which focuses on The Beatles’ come-up and years of touring that followed. It included beautiful quality live performances at the Hollywood Bowl, Shea Stadium and one particular rooftop.
And, in addition to contextualizing the atmosphere of the era, the commentary band members give to reporters and each other adds a new layer of insight to the music. I walked out grasping a deeper appreciation for songs like “Ticket to Ride,” “Help!,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” and most of all “I’ve Got A Feeling.”
Likewise, many other well-executed documentaries hold new knowledge and a offer a more personal connection to music-makers. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Amy, We Jam Econo and Scorsese’s Bob Dylan biopic No Direction Home all grant viewers a chance to gain a greater perspective on the music of each of the artists featured.
Seeing a performer in his or her natural environment causes the mind to consider from where they might have come and through what they might have suffered.
Documentaries about broader music scenes also offer insight into a particular sonic milieu. The filmmakers often capture the attitude of the time and place. Two instances of this include the famous punk rock doc The Decline of Western Civilization and the classic outlaw country film Heartworn Highways.
Watching larger-than-life musicians casually talking and doing normal things is almost as fascinating as seeing them perform on stage. It’s one of the reasons why music documentaries are almost necessary to understand the bigger picture, whether the artist wants us to or not. And there will always be filmmakers who will see that no stone is left unturned.
At the moment, I’m waiting to see the new Nick Cave documentary One More Time With Feeling directed by the same person who made The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Unfortunately, it has an extremely limited theater run.
And that’s a shame because, like any other music documentary, it would give me more context into his unorthodox approach. But, at least I’ll have something to look forward to, and in the meantime, check a few more docs off the list.
Luke Furman is a junior studying journalism at Ohio University. What is your favorite music documentary? Let Luke know by tweeting him @LukeFurmanLog or emailing him at email@example.com.