Top 10 Classic Rock Documentaries
No matter how much we love rock ‘n’ roll, sometimes we all have to take a break from listening to it and do something different — like, say, watching a classic rock documentary. In the not-too-distant past, watching a movie meant one of two things: Either you went to a theater to see it, or you took it in on television, either by buying a copy, tuning in while it was on the air or renting it from your local video store. These days, movies have become almost as portable as music; we can stream or DVR them, watch on our smartphones or our home theater systems and obtain access to them all over the web. Tracking down an interesting film used to be kind of difficult; now, the hard part is just deciding which one to pick. That’s where we come in: If you’re in the mood for a great movie tonight but don’t know where to start, we’ve lined up a list of the Top 10 Classic Rock Documentaries for you to choose from.
It’s always hard to evaluate the historical significance of a work of art right after it’s been released. That being said, even though ‘Sound City’ was released in 2013, it absolutely belongs on or list of the Top 10 Classic Rock Documentaries. First-time filmmaker Dave Grohl expertly weaves together the multiple strands of his narrative, telling the story of the titular studio while offering an impassioned defense of time-tested analog recording methods, treating viewers to an eclectic parade of rock superstars, and wrapping the whole thing up with a good old-fashioned jam. Here’s hoping Grohl finds the time to get back behind the camera to tell a few more stories before he’s through.
Keep plying your trade long enough, and the rest of the world will catch up to you. Just ask the guys in Rush, who spent the better part of 40 years being regarded as a cult act — in spite of selling an awful lot of records along the way — before finally being given their mainstream due. The band’s journey is chronicled in 2010’s ‘Beyond the Lighted Stage,’ featuring performance footage alongside interviews with the band members, their crew, their fans, and some of their most well-known fans (some of whom might surprise you).
No matter how much you love the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the band deserves a four-hour documentary — and yet that’s precisely what director Peter Bogdanovich went and made in 2007 with ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream.’ Even more impressive? The darn thing actually works, holding the viewer’s interest throughout its posterior-numbing length by presenting each stage of Petty and his bandmates’ careers with humor, compassion, and just enough information to keep things from getting bogged down in the details. If you’re a Petty fan, you obviously need to see it — but even if you aren’t, you might be surprised by just how much you’ll enjoy the ride.
‘The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years’
Part tribute to the music that helped shape a decade, part hedonistic horror show, director Penelope Spheeris’ ‘The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years’ is compelling viewing whether or not you care about the bands in front of the cameras — partly because interview subjects like Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, and Steven Tyler are so much fun to watch, but mostly because it’s a smart, dispassionate look at a genre whose artists spent a lot of years struggling to win widespread respect. Although it’s true that the movie seems to take a certain amount of snide pleasure in mocking some of the musicians (not to mention the fans), and there’s an undeniably grim shadow hanging over a number of its interviews, ‘Decline Part II’ still represents one of the more thoughtful looks at ’80s hard rock that Hollywood’s yet been able to muster.
‘Tom Dowd and the Language of Music’
A teenage nuclear physicist turned house producer for Atlantic Records, Tom Dowd would be worthy of a documentary even if he hadn’t been one of the best producers who ever lived. Happily for director Mark Moormann, Dowd was not only a brilliant and talented man, but he also happened to work on an impressive list of classic records for some of the biggest names in modern music — including Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and many, many more. Featuring interviews with Dowd and many of his famous clients, ‘Tom Dowd and the Language of Music’ works on multiple levels, offering a fascinating — and often quite moving — argument for the power of music while also serving as a fitting biopic tribute to one of classic rock’s most indispensable behind-the-scenes talents.
‘The Wrecking Crew’
The truly unsung heroes of rock’s early years, the Wrecking Crew were a loosely affiliated group of L.A.-based session players who played on a stunning array of classic sides. While their contributions were hardly acknowledged on the liner notes of the albums they helped make hits, their stature has only grown with rock fans over the years, and director Danny Tedesco’s 2008 documentary — suitably named ‘The Wrecking Crew — serves as a long-overdue tribute to the men and women behind the music. Filmed over a 12-year period, ‘The Wrecking Crew’ has won an array of festival prizes over the last five years, but is still somewhat incredibly unavailable on the home video market, although screenings will continue in 2013 and the film’s website is soliciting donations to secure a more substantial release.
The definitive rock band deserves the definitive rock documentary — and that’s basically what the Beatles got with 1995’s ‘Anthology.’ Six hours of footage, curated by surviving former band members Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, this multimedia project tells the band’s story in its own words using archival footage, interview segments, and previously unreleased music. Although the ‘Anthology’ series — which originally aired over the course of several nights on ABC in 1995 — also drew criticism from some quarters for its inclusion of a pair of “new” Beatles songs cobbled together from new recordings and old John Lennon demos, its positive qualities far outweigh the negative — and it’s much too massive and ambitious to classify as anything but essential viewing.
Painstakingly assembled over the course of nearly five years and completed mere weeks before the untimely death of drummer Keith Moon, ‘The Kids Are Alright’ presents not only the definitive film portrait of the Who at their peak power, it’s also something of a case study in how rock documentaries should be made. Although director Jeff Stein had no filmmaking experience, his dogged determination to compile an authoritative timeline of the Who’s best on-camera moments — combined with the band’s willingness to provide Stein with almost untrammeled backstage access — left viewers with a captivating hodgepodge of live shows, TV appearances, candid behind-the-scenes moments, and the final performances from Moon, who passed away one week after viewing a rough cut of the movie. Essential for the Who faithful, ‘The Kids Are Alright’ is also the rare rock doc with enough raw power to reach out and touch the unconverted.
Director D.A. Pennebaker captured Bob Dylan on his 1965 U.K. tour for this film, which basically set the template for everything a rock documentary is supposed to be. One of the few films that’s been able to transcend the genre, ‘Don’t Look Back’ is widely regarded as not only a definitive entry in the rock-doc canon, but one of the greatest documentaries in modern film, period — and that goes double if you’re a Dylan fan, because these 96 minutes capture the Bard at a crucial moment in his early career, blending stellar live performances of classic cuts with some of the most intimate moments he’d ever allow on camera.
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade — and when you’re directors Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, and your decision to follow the Rolling Stones for the last few weeks of their 1969 tour ends with your cameras capturing the tragic death of a fan during what would ultimately become arguably the most infamous concert in rock history, you make ‘Gimme Shelter,’ which tops our list of the Top 10 Classic Rock Documentaries. Unlike a lot of documentaries, ‘Shelter’ doesn’t make heavy use of traditional ingredients like interviews or voiceovers, opting instead to simply show the viewer what was unfolding in and around the Stones during the days leading up to the Altamont concert on Dec. 6, 1969. It was exactly the right technique to produce a grimly powerful film that functions as not only a snapshot of a dark chapter in the band’s history, but a crucial change in the way the public viewed the American counterculture as the ’60s turned into the ’70s.