The holidays are upon us.
And while wrapping up shopping should be job #1 (hint, hint), it is never too soon to plan for the season’s biggest dilemma: what the heck to talk to your family about.
No doubt you love each other. And that’s why you should avoid as many awkward landmines as possible. Thankfully, we’ve got a solution—stream a music documentary together this season.
Now, that might not be as traditional as a 10,000th viewing of “A Christmas Story.” Still, I’d argue the movies on this list pack enough joy and cheer to make any grinch’s heart grow three sizes. What’s any great band, if not a family? If they can overcome their disputes and dysfunction, there’s hope for us all. And look, if the incredible tunes don’t win everybody over, at least you and yours can say, “well, we’re not as crazy as these people.”
This past year has been uncommonly kind to fans of rock docs. Here are five that I highly recommend for everybody from boomers to zoomers.
Dir. Peter Jackson
The big surprise of “Get Back” is not why the Beatles broke up. It’s how they almost stayed together.
This 3-episode series is an eight hr. reworking of documentary footage from January 1969. By September of that year, John Lennon will have quit the band for good. The cracks are there as the lads try to record songs that will come out as Let It Be once they break up. Paul is controlling, John is drifting, George wants to be an equal partner, and Ringo is affable as ever but so unwilling to speak up that he falls asleep at the drum kit. Jackson does an admirable job of humanizing the egos and placing the squabbles and exhaustion in context. It is a loooong ride, but as a true fan, Jackson aches for this fellowship to endure.
To me, none of the damage or pressures seems insurmountable. Each member is self-aware of his own baggage, and there is plenty of brotherly affection before and after George quits for a few days. The sessions, while slow and loose by the Beatle’s super-human standards, are crazy great.
At its heart, “Get Back” is a film about procrastination. Up against an end-of-month deadline, the Beatles putter and putz for weeks. Genius pops by now and again, and we get to watch classic after classic take shape in real-time. Billy Preston, Glyn Johns, and Mighty Mal Evans heroically help them keep moving.
Paul wants to record this new material stripped-down, live as a band. On the one hand, it’s the most frustrating way for a band already on each other’s nerves to cut tracks. On the other, even after three years since a proper live performance, they are a magical live rock ’n’ roll band. They know it too. These sessions have been pointed to as the low-point of the band, but they are so much more functional than other groups that made it. I found myself full of joy that with a cosmic nudge in the right direction, the Beatles could have kept going.
“McCartney 3, 2, 1”
Dir. Zachary Heinzerling
As a producer, Rick Rubin’s at his best when he’s stripping artists down to their essential core. Shot in stark black and white in a simple recording studio, that’s the same approach Rubin takes to interviewing Paul McCartney in this six-episode miniseries. It’s hard to find stories Paul hasn’t shared before. But the series shakes them loose by having the pair listen to original studio master tracks. Isolating unique parts sparks great memories and insights into McCartney’s writing, performance and production choices.
Paul is 100% my favorite Beatle, so perhaps I’m more immune to how reverent Rubin is. But I also found the human asides most engaging; Paul grimacing at a hidden botched note; Paul talking about weeping with joy when he first saw Fela Kuti; admitting that he and John taught themselves to write ballads purely to start playing more lucrative supper club gigs; deciding George Martin must have played a piano part because he knows it’s too advanced to have come from him. Watch if only to hear Paul talk about the influence of Motown’s James Jamerson on his unique approach to the bass.
Macca serves as EP on the project, so yes, it’s gonna show him the best possible light. But it’s a beautiful gift to feel like you are listening alongside an almost 80-year-old artist and have them be so clear-eyed about their life’s work. I hope that Rubin and team are working to make follow-ups using this formula for other musicians.
“The Sparks Brothers”
Dir. Edgar Wright
As much as we all love the Fab Four, it feels like we’ve analyzed every second of their career. So it’s refreshing to have a documentary dedicated to an under-the-radar band that kept breaking new ground for over a half-century. I fully admit Sparks (aka brothers Ron and Russel Mael) were a complete blindspot for me before this film. It’s delightful to have a movie give you that same sense of wonder and discovery you get when a cooler friend gives you a mix.
Packed with raving interviews from a parade of other artists, “The Sparks Brothers” is the first documentary from professed fanboy Edgar Wright. (Side note: I’d argue “Scott Pilgram” and “Baby Driver” are two of the best music movies of the last 20 years, but that’s a different article). Now in their 70s, the Maels are off-beat pop enigmas cursed to always be one step ahead of the next big thing. Across 25 albums, they’ve crafted a wry, always-evolving cocktail of rock, glam, dance, synth-pop and so on.
Sustained by overseas hits and a cult fan base, the Sparks boys have never stopped chasing their own muse. One part victory lap, one part secret history of pop, I loved this movie.
“A Man Named Scott”
Dir. Robert Alexander
Over the last dozen years, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi changed not only what hip-hop sounds like but what it could say. His melodic, confessional songs topped the charts while expressing vulnerability and his mental health struggles. Hip hop has been brilliant as the “CNN of the streets,” to paraphrase Chuck D, but Cudi’s refusal to be anybody but himself has opened new worlds of self-expression and genre-mixing daring for rappers.
This new documentary about Cudi is compelling, though frustrating at moments (so much Shia LaBeouf). It tracks Cudi’s rise from MySpace nobody from Cleveland to international tastemaker while not shying away from the darkness of fame, drugs and depression. It’s a familiar story in music history, but the film does hit home how much Cudi’s very public journey has meant to today’s generation of fans and artists. Over and over again, they say how Cudi’s music saved their lives. When the film can focus on that (and move past problematic interviews and artsy reenactments), it becomes a moving meditation on the power of music to sustain and save us.
“The Velvet Underground”
Dir. Todd Haynes
I’m not going to lie: It would take a particular kind of family to enjoy this one together. But if Gramgram knows all the words to “Sister Ray,” this is an instant classic that sets the bar for rock docs. Haynes is known for taking big chances with music projects. “Velvet Goldmine” is non-linear story inspired by the mythology of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, not actual fact. “I’m Not Here” was an even more experimental biopic featuring five different actors portraying aspects of Bob Dylan. This doc is a more traditional interview-based piece but it does borrow many cinematic flourishes from the ’60s art film scene.
It’s an ambitious movie that explores not just the Velvets as a band, but the avant-garde literature, art, film, and experimental noise that birthed them. By virtue of still being alive, John Cale and his time in the band guide much of the narrative (Mo Tucker does pop up to tell us how much she hates peace and love, which I appreciated) Haynes doesn’t pull too many punches about the difficult genius of Lou Reed or sexist dark side of Warhol’s Factory.
You could nit and say the self-titled third record and Loaded don’t get their due. Unlike “The Sparks Brothers,” we get very little about the seismic influence of the Velvets—although Jonathon Richman is incredible as stand-in for all fans. But Haynes does an exceptional job reminding us how vital the Velvets were for rewriting the rules of what music could talk about, sound like and mean.
There are so many other great music documentaries and performance films out there. I am overdue in watching Questlove’s “Summer of Soul,” The Armed’s “ULTRAPOP: Live at the Masonic,” and Billy Ellish’s “The World’s a Little Blurry,” which all also came out this year as well. Also if you haven’t yet, check out the Coda Collection, a dedicated streaming service for music content that’s always adding new stuff.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go convince my parents to watch Metallica’s “Some Kind of Monster.” Happy streaming.