Behind the Music

“Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.” –Charlie Parker

Make a movie about an albino orangutan terrorizing Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Easy. Just get yourself an ape, some bleach, bribe the ASPCA, shoot the movie wherever you happen to live—with the comfort that the only complaints might arise from Perth Amboyans—dodge local authorities guerrilla-style (what pun?), and there you go. But make a documentary about the imminent implosion of a successful rock band at the height of their popularity? Hmm…

The trick of successful cinema verité is not only gaining access to appealing and engrossing subjects, but filming them as they do engrossing stuff. One might argue that only hardcore fans would be willing to sit and watch a washed-up Don Henley spew political screeds while horseback riding in Montana or whatever. But with some subjects, like Michael Jackson let’s say, public interest/revulsion is such that just watching him go about what might be mundane daily life takes on a peculiar fascination. Throw in the fact that of all the talents Jackson has, acting mundane isn’t one of them, along with the allegations of sexual misconduct with children he now faces, and Martin Bashir’s Living With Michael Jackson (2003) makes international headlines and holds viewers in a car-crash rubbernecking trance.

The public’s desire to penetrate the veil of celebrity that surrounds our rock and pop stars has elevated to a point where the stars, for whatever reason, have seen that exposure as either just another price of fame, a shrewd marketing technique (Hey! I’m just like you, only with eight bazillion dollars), or even a chance to collaborate on a new wave of raw, and occasionally unflattering rock documentaries. As seen by some new titles built with tools provided by the genre’s greatest films, whatever the artists’ motivation might be, these films aren’t dull.

“Initially, I really wanted to shoot the process of recording an album from start to finish,” says Sam Jones, director of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (2002), a documentary on the making of alt-country/rock group Wilco’s album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch, 2002). “But when the corporate side started to rear its ugly head, I realized that it was as much a part of the album-making process. That’s the magic of cinema verité.”

Life unfolds without a script, and this style of filmmaking (literally “film truth”) approaches naturalism at its most honest in nonfiction, allowing the audience to gain a wider, more personal appreciation for a real rock band than any concert film or VH-1 Behind The Music-style retrospective. The recent showering of rock films, including Break Your Heart, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), and DIG! (2004) have used cinema verité to capture their subjects mainly through a solitary event or a moment in time. Shunning staged interviews and the single-concert concept, the directors of these recent films hope to bring their subjects closer to the audience by allowing them to see the band in the midst of their creative process and non-working life, as opposed to merely presenting their music on stage or musing through interviews.

Like seminal rock documentaries Don’t Look Back (1967) by D.A. Pennebaker—following the scene surrounding Bob Dylan’s 1965 solo acoustic tour of England—and Michael Lindsay Hogg’s Let It Be (1970)— chronicling the recording of what would be the Beatles’ last album (recorded before Abbey Road, but released afterwards)—this new batch of rock documentaries isn’t afraid to show the artists’ sometimes prickly nature.

Watching Wilco’s frontman and chief songwriter Jeff Tweedy in Jones’s film stand awkwardly in a gaggle of fawning fans at a solo show or bristle against soon-to-depart bandmate Jay Bennett while mixing a song, it’s hard not to flash back to Dylan pacing and fidgeting with his harmonica backstage, boorishly mocking clueless reporters, or completely dismantling insipid folkie Donovan in a hotel room with a hypnotically rebuking performance of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which was proposed as a peace offering but delivered as a punch to the gut.

The idea, as Pennebaker introduced it for a rock audience, was for a handheld camera to follow the action unobtrusively, catching revealing moments without influencing them. The audience is there, simply watching.

“There’s no way for a writer, a filmmaker, or a photographer to inject themselves into a picture without changing it,” Jones says. “I think I blended in without trying to hide. When the camera was on, I tried not to make eye contact or to speak.”

Which any Wilco fan would appreciate even if the only action were the uneventful making of an album. But when Bennett leaves the band (or is forced out depending on whom you believe) and Reprise Records, the band’s long-time label, rejects their album as noncommercial crap, the story veers into unexpected terrain more alluring for a wider audience.

“This became kind of an out-of-control project for a good period of time,” Jones says. “But I wasn’t sitting around thinking, ‘Wow this will really deepen my story’ or ‘Maybe the record won’t come out and there is no story.’ I was just filming.”

The result is one of those multi-layered ironies: a band creates a supposedly non-commercial album that is rejected by their label creating tension, which increases the commerciality of the film documenting the making of the album. The band then sells the unchanged album to another division of the same company (Nonesuch at AOL Time Warner), and it becomes a runaway commercial and artistic success, underlying themes on the album itself.

“I wanted to just turn on the cameras and see what happened,” Jones says. “I knew I didn’t want to make an anthology or a definitive Wilco movie.” And in doing so, Jones and Wilco produced something richer: a slice of rock life served with a large dollop of corporate folly.

Similarly, just as no band will ever strain against unparalleled success and fragmenting friendships on film as The Beatles did, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield in their film grapple at their own career crossroads, when it seems at times as though after twenty years they have no good reason for making music together anymore.

When bassist Jason Newsted left the group in 2001 citing “the physical damage I’ve done to myself playing the music live,” Metallica, the best-selling hard metal act of all-time, hired a Cosby sweater-clad therapist to help them work through their interpersonal issues for $40,000 a month. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Paradise Lost, Brother’s Keeper) capture surreal sessions of emoting and therapyspeak, slammed doors and screaming fits, studio struggles, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett’s puppy-dog pacifism, Ulrich’s war against Napster, Hetfield’s yearlong self-imposed absence into alcohol rehabilitation, and the impact his strict recovery program has on the others.

The beauty of Sinofsky and Berlinger’s approach—an ability that allowed them unfettered access to families on opposing sides of a bitter and gruesome small town murder trial for Paradise Lost—is how they insinuate themselves, roll the cameras, and wait for something to happen. Metallica enforced no restrictions, and then it was up to life to make the film interesting. If nothing gripping happened, this could have been a home video attached to the new album instead of a theatrically-released film exploring fame, alcoholism, maturation, fatherhood, friendship, and yeah, making loud, fast, aggressive music.

Such filmmaking not only involves access and a low profile, though. It needs time. And time means money.

After Hetfield’s extended absence and the growing concern that an album wasn’t close to completion, the band’s label, Elektra, was prepared to pull the plug on the film. But committed to the project, Metallica put up $2 million of it’s own money to buy the film from Elektra and see it through.

Ondi Timoner, who wrote, directed, and produced DIG! (which was awarded the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year) recalls how difficult it was to secure outside funding, not because she didn’t need it or it wasn’t available, but “because there was never an end date [to the film shoot], and there were 2,000 hours of footage.”

For seven years Timoner followed two rival bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. “It was my aim from the beginning to shoot life as it was unfolding so I could create the suspense of a narrative but with real footage,” Timoner says. As much as the film set out to explore that ubiquitous conflict between artistic expression and corporate control, the result is a film equally about ego, friendship, social acceptance, personal accountability, and failure. “DIG! is something that I think has a lot of elements that people can relate to who aren’t even music fans, as well as a feeling of gritty reality and full access not often seen on screen,” Timoner says.

Like Timoner’s work, the most rewarding rock documentaries go beyond a journalistic function to record events for posterity, even if they are events embraced by, and that arguably define, a generation. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968) offers Jimi Hendrix at the peak of his powers and Otis Redding performing for a predominantly middle-class white crowd for the first time. Woodstock (1970) was, well, Woodstock. In all it’s overblown muddy glory. But it’s the unexpected that provides the power in David and Albert Maysles’s monumental Gimme Shelter (1970). In the film, The Rolling Stones watch raw footage of their free concert at Altamont Speedway from some months earlier during which the menacing vibe of Hell’s Angels, who were hired as security, led to a deadly stabbing in the audience as the band slogged their way through “Under My Thumb.” Depicting Mick Jagger’s face grow ashen and slack in horror as he watches the screen, the Maysles brothers might just as well have documented the deterioration of the ’60s utopian dream.

Rock documentaries can be postmodern cool like Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984) or mostly rote and dated like Led Zepellin’s concert film at Madison Square Garden The Song Remains the Same (1976), which intersperses the action on stage with cheesy fantasy sequences.

But rock documentary doesn’t get any better than Martin Scorsese’s brilliantly executed film of The Band’s 1976 all-star farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland, The Last Waltz (1978).

Scorsese, who was an assistant film editor on Woodstock, was determined to control everything about the concert shoot for The Last Waltz, shooting in 35mm, rehearsing a script for the cameramen, and hiring Boris Levin, the art designer for West Side Story (1961), to redesign Winterland using the set from The New York Opera Company’s La Traviata and chandeliers from Gone With the Wind (1939). Concert promoter Bill Graham, protective of the paying audience’s sight lines, forced the film producers to negotiate with lawyers over every camera position. Scorsese’s seven cameramen were an all-star team of cinematographers including Lazlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond who shot 600,000 feet of film.

But like in life, it’s the unexpected that makes the film interesting. Executive producer Jonathan Taplin tells on the DVD commentary track how Scorsese had slotted the Muddy Waters song “Mannish Boy” as a time to reload the cameras before realizing it was another name for the blues standard “I’m a Man.” Taplin says, “Lazlo Kovacs had gotten so irritated with Marty screaming in his ear over headphones, that he had taken his headphones off and he didn’t hear that he was supposed to cut.” So the song appears in the film as Kovac’s close-up on this riveting, joyous performance, provoking rock writer Greil Marcus to exclaim, “You’re not looking at anyone else, you don’t really care who else is there—you’re like: what is this force of nature? Who is this god?”

The lesson, then and now, is that when dealing with forces of nature as volatile and mysterious as rock music, it’s often best to pack lots of film, sit back, and try not to get run over.