Far from being bland hagiographies, most films about rock musicians prove to be gripping, warts-and-all documentaries.
Ego trumps caution when the documentary cameras rock 'n' roll
Offering a glimpse into the dying days of the world's biggest band, the Beatles' last film, Let It Be, didn't just capture great live performances, but also colliding egos. It remains the definitive rock documentary.
More than 40 years later and two of today's biggest touring bands, the Kings of Leon and the Foo Fighters, are the subjects of their own rock 'n' roll exposés, respectively Talihina Sky and Back and Forth. Both show bands in turmoil and their members racked with self-doubt - it seems the Fab Four's celluloid swan song still looms large over the modern rock doc.
Making its debut at New York's Tribeca Film Festival later this month, Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon looks at how the three Followill brothers and their cousin Nathan left a life of near-poverty in Tennessee and became a multimillion-selling band, headlining arenas around the globe. Its trailer includes footage of the group playing giant shows, firing handguns and partying as only rock stars can, before cutting to images of the dilapidated house in which the brothers grew up and home video footage of them as children. The film also includes an interview with the father of the brothers, a preacher who questions the wisdom of their hedonistic ways.
The Foo Fighters documentary, Back and Forth, which had its premiere at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, last month, is both a career retrospective and an attempt to document the recording of the band's latest album, Wasting Light, in the garage of the singer Dave Grohl. The trailer opens with an interview in which Grohl claims: "There were some people who really resented me for starting this band," and "I didn't want to just always be known as this guy who played drums with Nirvana." Meanwhile, his bandmate Taylor Hawkins casts doubt on the group's future, stating: "Well, if the Foo Fighters are over then the Foo Fighters are over, and I'm OK with that."
While infighting and the crushing weight of others' expectations are the most common features of rock documentaries, they are by no means the only source of drama in the genre. Often heralded as the greatest music documentary ever made, the Rolling Stones' 1970 film Gimme Shelter was the story of a band plagued by dangerous forces and details the group's infamous 1969 appearance at the Altamont Free Concert in northern California, where members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang were hired as security staff.
After spending all day drinking and arguing with fans, many of the gang (armed with pool cues) became so violent that a number of the scheduled support acts refused to play. Things came to a head during the Stones' performance of Under My Thumb, when an 18-year-old fan called Meredith Hunter was stabbed twice by one of the Hells Angels. Despite fleeing the scene, he was later found beaten to death.
The 2004 documentary Dig! does feature musicians butting heads, but rather than focusing on the petty jealousy of band mates, it depicts the bitter rivalry between two emerging groups. Despite both being members of the mid-1990s San Francisco scene and sharing a love of psychedelic pop, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre could not have been more different. The Dandys were well adjusted, professional and (most important) selling records. The BJM, led by the volatile "genius" Anton Newcombe, were the opposite. As the Dandys' career began to take off and the BJM's potential continued to be unrealised, Newcombe's descent into bitterness, jealousy, addiction and onstage violence becomes the film's tragic core.
When it comes to gut-wrenching candour, few musical exposés live up to Metallica's 2004 film, Some Kind of Monster. The no-holds-barred look at the biggest metal band in the world follows on from the departure of the group's bass player Jason Newsted and singer James Hetfield's stint in rehab. In a bid to keep the band together during the recording of the album St Anger, their management enlists the assistance of a "performance-enhancing coach" who urges them to understand one another better by confronting their issues. These include a "power struggle" between Hetfield and the drummer Lars Ulrich and even the perceived betrayal of the original guitarist Dave Mustaine 20 years earlier.
If these films and the hundreds of others that exist share one central thesis, it's that musicians can be permitted wealth and fame, but they are not allowed to be happy.