Top 10 Unreleased Rock Documentaries
George Lucas once said, “A movie is never finished, only abandoned.” That’s literally true for these Top 10 Unreleased Rock Documentaries, which all have been hidden from the public eye at some point, often because their subjects were less than thrilled with the results. The passage of time has eroded enough egos for some of these flicks to get a decades-late release, others exist in bootleg versions that can be viewed on YouTube and still others remain left to fans’ imaginations. Below are 10 rock docs that, at one time or another, were unavailable for public consumption.
Going back decades, human rights group Amnesty International has been working with musicians to get out the word about the charitable organization’s efforts around the world. In the ’80s and ’90s, the group put together multiple concerts and tours featuring some of the biggest names in music: U2, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Peter Gabriel, the Police, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and others. Although millions witnessed these shows in person, it wasn’t until the fall of 2013 that footage of these events was officially released in a giant boxed set, featuring four full-length films that focused on concerts/tours in 1986, 1988, 1990 and 1998.
In the face of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Cream et al., London rockers the Pretty Things often get forgotten in the conversation of groundbreaking ’60s bands. All the more reason, then, to create a documentary to demonstrate their creativity and live prowess, right? That’s what Reelin’ in the Years Productions thought when the folks there put together a document of the band’s early years that featured 20 full-length performances. Sadly, Reelin’ in the Years entered into a bad deal with a distributor, which left the company unable to pay for the music clearances and resulted in the film remaining in limbo – save for a handful of festival or museum screenings.
The Grateful Dead’s Aug. 27, 1972 benefit concert for the Springfield Creamery in Oregon has long been the stuff of Deadhead lore – the kind of show that becomes part of “best concert ever” conversations. Because of the unique circumstances of the performance, the show was filmed in 16mm, but was only screened at small festivals or available on bootleg tapes and DVDs. Those ramshackle copies were given a big upgrade in 2013 when a remastered, HD, 5.1 audio version of the film was released as ‘Sunshine Daydream.’ Although some muttered that the films 102-minute run time only captured a fraction of the band’s three-set show, others were overjoyed to experience an epic version of ‘Dark Star’ in all its glory.
In 1968, as the Stones were working on ‘Beggars Banquet,’ Mick Jagger was seeking to promote the record with something different. He and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg came up with the idea of doing a TV special featuring performances by other artists (the Who, Jethro Tull, John Lennon, Taj Mahal and Marianne Faithfull) and headlined by the band – all wrapped up in a circus motif. Despite one-of-a-kind footage – an unknown Tony Iommi sitting in with Jethro Tull; Lennon backed by Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Richards; Brian Jones’ last performance with the Stones – this ‘Rock and Roll Circus’ remained unseen for nearly three decades. Why? The old rumor is that Jagger and pals felt they were upstaged by rivals the Who (with a blistering ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’) on their own special. The film was thought to be lost until the missing pieces were found in 1989 in the Who’s vault, resulting in a 1996 home video release. So you can both blame the Who for the delay and thank the band for the eventual release of ‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.’
It’s an absolute crime that this movie – not just one of our Top 10 Unreleased Rock Documentaries, but one of the most glowingly reviewed music films in recent years – has yet to see an official release. It took producer Laurel Legler and director David C. Thomas seven years to research, collect footage and film ‘A True Testimonial,’ which became a smash at multiple film festivals. On the eve of a May 2004 DVD release, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer (who had previously praised the movie) sued Legler and Thomas, alleging that they had agreed he would be the film’s music producer. The release was cancelled. Although a court sided with the filmmakers in 2007, the doc spotlighting the seminal Detroit proto-punks has yet to see an official home video release.
In 1979, Clapton put together a European tour featuring George Harrison, Elton John and Muddy Waters, in which everyone would travel from stop-to-stop on a train (and not just any train, but one designed for Nazi leader Hermann Goring). The trek was filmed and edited into a feature-length documentary that was never released. The reason for that comes back to Clapton, visibly intoxicated throughout the film, who might have felt his performances were not fit to be spotlighted. Some fans who’ve seen bootleg editions of ‘Rolling Hotel’ would agree with that assessment, although there are other moments that are affecting (Clapton talking about the death of Jimi Hendrix), amusing (Clapton and his assistant toying with a French journalist) and engaging (his impromptu acoustic version of ‘When Did You Leave Heaven?’). The entire film, along with several clips, are up on YouTube.
For the 1999 edition of Ozzfest, Sharon Osbourne hired director Penelope Spheeris (‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ trilogy, ‘Wayne’s World’) to document the summer metal festival. Spheeris went all-out, not just interviewing bands and showing live footage from Ozzfest, but going behind-the-scenes with security, groupies and “Pyro” Pete. So with the advent of Ozzy Osbourne as a mega-celebrity a few years after this was filmed, why has the doc never been released? Again, it comes down to the expense of music clearances. Ozzy and headliners Black Sabbath are just one band featured in the movie (along with Deftones, Slipknot, Slayer, Rob Zombie and others). Sharon, forever the shrewd businesswoman, decided that paying for the music rights wasn’t going to result in a profitable film – one that remains only available (you guessed it) on YouTube.
Gee, with two entries on this list, you’d think Mick Jagger was camera-shy… or he knows exactly what he doesn’t want the public to see. In the case of ‘C---sucker Blues,’ that means a warts-and-all look at the Stones ’72 tour of the U.S., in which Jagger is seen snorting cocaine and other members of the entourage are depicted indulging in all sorts of decadent acts. Robert Frank stood by the film he directed and when he looked to release it, got sued by the Stones to prevent that from happening. (The story goes that Jagger told Frank, “It’s a f---ing good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed in the country again.”) The decision resulted in Frank’s ability to screen the film four times per calendar year as long as he is in attendance. Curious fans have circumvented that ruling by checking out clips on YouTube. The Stones moved on by releasing a standard concert film from the tour – ‘Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones’ – in 1974.
The Fab Four have the only one of the Top 10 Unreleased Rock Documentaries that actually was first released, and then became unavailable. ‘Let It Be’ is a fly-on-the-wall documentary originally intended as a TV special documenting the Beatles making their latest album. The film highlights tensions that would lead to the band’s breakup – although it ends in the glorious finale of a live lunchtime performance on a London rooftop. The movie was released with the album in 1970 (even earning the boys an Oscar) and arrived in a poor transfer on home video in the early ’80s. Soon after, ‘Let It Be’ went out of print and has stayed that way ever since – although some have seen an old print at Beatle conventions. The movie was remastered in time for certain footage to be used in ‘The Beatles Anthology’ in 1995 and there were rumors of a full DVD release in 2003 and 2007 – with an extra disc of even more controversial bonus footage. Unhappy fans can blame Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who have reportedly blocked any DVD plans because the film could do harm to the public’s sunny perception of the Beatles. And yet, the 'Magical Mystery Tour' film remains readily available.
After having one go-around with a documentarian on his 1965 British tour, Bob Dylan decided to repeat the situation on his “electric” tour in 1966… with a few changes. Dylan would add friend Howard Alk to shoot alongside D.A. Pennebaker (who had made ‘Don’t Look Back’ the year before). He would have the film shot in color. And he would be less interested in cinema verite than bizarre set-ups in which he and the Hawks (soon to become the Band) could mess around. The resulting documentary was to be shown on ABC in 1967, although the network rejected both Pennebaker’s edit (titled ‘Something is Happening’) and Dylan’s own version (called ‘Eat the Document’). Frustrated with looking back and recuperating from his motorcycle accident, Dylan swallowed the entire thing, until a version of the movie was shown at New York’s Academy of Music in 1972. Because of the endless interest in this remarkable period of Dylan’s career, bootleg copies have been circulating ever since. But the curious also can see a fair amount of live footage (the incendiary version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ in Manchester) and goofing off (Dylan creating nonsensical poetry from a shop sign) in Martin Scorsese’s ‘No Direction Home.’