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  • Writer's pictureBarney Townsend

5 Music Documentaries You Must Watch - Part 1

Townsend Music Head Of D2C+ Paul Barton has a storied career in the music industry, starting as a label assistant at ZTT Records and going on to A&R, management and publishing roles at Perfect Songs Publishing, Warner Bros Records and more. Over the years, Paul has been a scholar, collector and aficionado of music documentaries, so we sat down and fired up the DVD player for the first instalment of his essential music doc selection.


Dig! (2004)

Featuring: The Dandy Warhols, The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Dig! should be everyone's number-one music documentary. It really is the film that reignited a new music documentary movement. It was made over seven years, following the increasingly divergent careers of Portland, Oregon's The Dandy Warhols and San Francisco's The Brian Jonestown Massacre, as the former signs to a major label and the latter toil on the underground circuit, often a victim of their own excesses.

Dig! really makes you question the concept of "selling out". The Dandy Worhols were given an opportunity - and they took it - but it's clear that if the same opportunities were afforded to The Brian Jonestown Massacre, which you see they almost were, they would likely have been taken as well.

The fate of two bands that start in the same underground scene divides over several years and the events are captured in real-time. There is a key scene when The Brian Jonestown Massacre, barely scraping by at the time, visit The Dandy Warhols recording in a huge mansion and the encounter brims with passive aggression and things left unsaid.

You can see it in Anton Newcombe's eyes when he hears his friends' 'Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth' on the radio and he realises: this is a smash hit!

What is interesting looking back is that The Brian Jonestown Massacre stayed the more interesting of the two bands. The Dandy Warhols went off the boil pretty quickly and you wonder if that's because of the pressure the major label deal they had to deliver on. On the other hand, it shows just how quickly you can be the flavour of the month with people wanting to sign you - and not being the flavour of the month because you're absolutely barking mad!

I think the legacy of Dig! is that every man and his dog realised that there's a real worth in making these documentaries because the careers of bands truly are great stories waiting to be told.


Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster (2004)

Featuring: Metallica

The best thing about Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster is that, like all great documentaries, you don't need to be a fan of the subject matter to enjoy it; Some Kind of Monster stands up as a film in its own right.

There's another Metallica documentary about the making of The Black Album (A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, 1992) which was only available on VHS. The contrast between this documentary and Some Kind Of Monster is remarkable. Back then they're a band about to go above ground, but they're still gritty and they're in it for all the right reasons and are being pushed out of their comfort zone by a new producer brought in by their management company. They deliver a smash record without losing their connection to the past and the rest is history.

You fast-forward to Some Kind Of Monster and we see a band that have completely lost all sense of who they are and what they are.

At this point, the band is in such a bubble, they have no idea of who they are - they've become a brand now. It's a walking, talking Spın̈al Tap. It's difficult to fathom that those same people now actually think like this - as people and musicians they're so removed from reality it's awful. But that's why it's such a great documentary - a band of this size, with so much riding on maintaining themselves as a touring and album-selling entity, allowed the filmmakers to put this together and allowed it to be released. It's also an interesting insight and commentary on a band coming to the end of its life with a producer. There's no doubt Bob Rock catapulted that band to what they became, but here it's run its course.

As unflattering a portrait as this is, Metallica have to be applauded for putting it out there, warts-and-all. They must know that they come across as coddled and neurotic, but maybe releasing that behaviour out into the public eye was an attempt to invite a response and come to terms with it, which is a fascinating dynamic.


20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Featuring: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis

I should start by saying that I'm not exactly what you'd call a Nick Cave fan. Not because I don't think that Nick and Warren Ellis aren't any good, it's just music I've never got into. I appreciate Warren Ellis's soundtrack work but I think the only Nick Cave song I'd ever listened to before watching this documentary was his duet with Kylie ('Where the Wild Roses Grow') but the power of this film just pulls you in.

The moment I finished watching 20,000 Days on Earth I had to immediately go out and listen to Nick Cave - that's the effect it has on you. It blurs the line between a documentary and drama, with candid footage and re-enactments that portray a complete artistic lifestyle.

It's different from your average documentary in that there are very deliberate cinematic choices in set pieces in the film. For instance, the scene where he and ex-Bad Seeds member Blixa Bargeld talk to each other in the car and the windows steam up, making communication difficult, is deliberately allegorical to their challenging relationship.

Cave and Ellis's friendship goes beyond a musical partnership and the film observes their personal ceremonies like eating and preparing food together in the kitchen.

Recent tragic events cast a shadow over the family elements of this film but, at this point in time, I didn't really think of Nick Cave as a father and a family man. The film also showcases his sense of humour. While he's obviously brilliant musically, he's got a dark, wry sense of humour and can laugh at himself.

I think 20,000 Days on Earth makes my list as it truly engages one in the art and vision of the subject matter. Before watching this film, I wouldn't class myself as a fan. The minute the credits rolled, I was.


The Go-Go's (2020)

Featuring: The Go-Go's

One thing that becomes very clear from watching Alison Ellwood's documentary The Go-Go's is just how big the band were, headlining concerts like Rock In Rio amongst many other accomplishments. And maybe it's my miseducation more than anything else, but you don't realise how many great songs they had. The band is superb.

The Go-Gos were an all-girl line-up in the 80s who could play, could sing, could write tunes and could perform well live; they had it all. For years they have not been given the credit they should have been given. Like all good documentaries, this one holds nothing back. They got deep into the dark parts, whether that's drug addiction or the feelings they had for each other at certain times - it's all laid bare, with all the main characters included.

This is simply a fantastic music documentary that many people may have overlooked. The Go-Gos and their inspiration on generations of female talent - and bands in general - have simply not been celebrated enough and this documentary goes a long way to change that.


The Possibilities Are Endless (2014)

Featuring: Edwyn Collins

Rather than simply being a documentary about a musician's work, this documentary follows singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins's recovery from a massive stroke that was completely debilitating. It covers his career, his major illness and how he recovers from that in a way that is poignant and compelling.

It's inspiring on a human level as we see him going from barely being able to communicate to getting back on stage, learning to perform again and eventually beginning to write again. After all the things they said he was never going to be able to do again, through determination and spirit, he gets himself back up there and does it.

What's remarkable is that Edwyn is a man who never loses his sense of humour, even with the chips are down and everything seems rather bleak.

Of all the documentaries here, this one is on another level because it's honest - brutally and truly honest. I think if you're a musician, there's a sense of showmanship; you don't necessarily want people to see how fragile you are because you want to stay on a pedestal. But here he lays bare his struggles and - more than that - he demonstrates that if you have something to hold onto, you can keep going.

A friend said to me this morning that when things get bad, the best thing you can do is stop looking too far forward and just concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Gradually, things will start to get better again. And, beyond the mettle and talent of Edwyn Collins, I think that precise sentiment is what this documentary captures and demonstrates in action.


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