5. Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
One of the most well-known entries on this list, ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ took as its subject an unfamiliar rockstar, a welcome turn from works focusing on the usual greats of Western music. Directed and written by Malik Bendjelloul (who tragically committed suicide in 2014), it details the extraordinary efforts of two South African men to find out what had happened to their hero, Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez, who had been rumoured to be dead.
Rogriguez’s music had, surprisingly, grown hugely popular in South Africa, despite never achieving much success in his home country. He’d never toured in South Africa yet had accumulated a following in anti-apartheid activist ranks. Bendjelloul collected all the rumours about the man from fans, about his music and his career, before embarking on a fascinating journey into the life of an unexpected musical icon.
Searching for Sugar Man felt like the filmic equivalent of rummaging through the cheap section of a record store’s collections and finding a true gem; that Rodriguez’s music was given a second chance through the documentary was a blessing for him and music fans alike.
4. Montage of Heck (2015)
One of modern rock’s most mythical figures, a documentary about Kurt Cobain was always going to be notable and contentious. Brett Morgen’s ‘Montage of Heck’ luckily managed the feat with care and respect. It’s been called the definitive Cobain biography and for good reason: Morgen and his crew were given unprecedented access to the musician’s personal archives and so includes unheard songs, unseen home movies, as well as some of Cobain’s own artwork and journals. It was also the first documentary to be given express cooperation by Cobain’s family.
The film chooses to focus its attention on Cobain’s upbringing and formative years; a positive choice as opposed to concentrating on the lurid details of his death by suicide at the young age of 27. The result is a work of pathos and intimacy, as we come closer to understanding the person behind the stories. It’s a completely humanising effort, not surprising given that his daughter Francis served as the film’s producer.
The greatness of Montage of Heck lies in the fact that there is something here for both Nirvana fanatics and those more neutral: Morgen’s documentary is so exhausting and detailed that even the biggest fan of Cobain should find out new insights about their idol, while it’s narrative is produced so well to interest and intrigue the casual viewer. As it stands, Montage of Heck is the most holistic look at a musical icon created, and deserves its acclaim for handling such a mythologised rockstar with delicacy.
3. Marley (2012)
Kevin Macdonald’s crowning achievement Marley is the definitive documentary on its icon, much like Montage of Heck was for its subject. The wealth of information and story about Bob Marley explored in the film is astounding and, at 144 minutes running time, feels like it could have gone on for far longer.
It delves deeper than Marley’s surface reputation as the Reggae king, as he’s known to most people, and feels completely all-encompassing. A complete biographical account of his life is provided: we are taken from his birth in 1945 to his death from cancer in 1981, learning of his rough upbringing in Jamaica to understanding his ascent to one of the 20th century’s most beloved and idolised musicians.
The film is filled with entertaining and touching interviews from friends and family providing further depth to proceedings. It feels like no part of Marley’s life is left unexamined. His politics, his Rastafarianism, and his complex relationship with his wife Rita are all discussed. Its the beauty of and message of Marley’s music that resonate most, though, and the film fittingly ends with footage of some of his live performances.
2. 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Morgan Neville’s documentary serves the purpose of telling a usually untold story as documentaries are great for doing, and the stories of backing singers are amongst the most unheralded in the entertainment industry. It’s a delightful and moving portrait of the voices in those songs we know so well, giving names to the people behind the stars. We’re given examples of iconic songs where backing singers played a vital part: Merry Clayton’s turn in the Rolling Stone’s ‘Gimme Shelter’ is a highlight, just one of many.
The film also shows what the life of a backing singer is like and what it takes to make a living doing it. It asks vital questions about the music industries treatment of these people, and it’s notable that many of them are black women, often used for their ‘soul’ or to provide a ‘gospel’ feel without them being provided a chance to elevate themselves to being the solo performer. It’s an inspirational, deeply moving film but at its most basic level, 20 Feet from Stardom is just a deserving portrait of people who should have had more gratitude; that it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary felt right.
1. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)
A story so similar to cult classic This is Spinal Tap to be downright unbelievable, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is often called the real life version of the former. Anvil were also a mildly popular heavy metal band just trying to hold onto their rockstar aspirations for a little while longer. Arriving in the 1980’s but just missing out on the wild success of similar bands like Metallica and Anthrax, the band kept plugging away, determined to live out their musical dreams for as long as possible. Amidst their growing delusions, large amounts of money are spent on promoters and touring.
The film is made by fan of the band and former roadie Sacha Gervasi and the affection he has for Anvil is clear in the thoughtfulness of the documentary. This is also where it differs from Spinal Tap: while admittedly funny (front man Steve Kudlow provides most of the comical lines), Anvil! holds a poignancy and melancholy that draw the viewer in.
Regardless of the band’s true musical ability or ultimate success, their maintained friendship throughout the battling decades and their sheer force of will to keep going playing only to small legions of loyal fans is praiseworthy. If rock’n’roll has always been about doing what one loves and not caring what anyone thinks either way, then Anvil are true exemplars of the genre.
Author Bio: Conor Lochrie is a Glaswegian currently travelling and working in New Zealand after 4 long and arduous years at university which he survived with a degree in Central and Eastern European Studies. Unsurprisingly, he now works in a warehouse but would much rather be watching and writing about cinema.