The 10 Best Music Documentaries of 2016

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Chris Willman
·Writer
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We’re gonna doc around the clock tonight, we’re gonna doc, doc, doc till broad daylight…

It’s been such a fine year for rock and pop documentaries, a viewing marathon may be in order. But not every music doc is fit for every mood. Want a night of pure ebullience? Rent or buy the documentaries on the Beatles’ early years or Mavis Staples’s later years. Nostalgic for a golden age of rock? Fire up a celebration of Iggy Pop’s proto-punk or Oasis’s essential Britpop. Do the holidays have you pondering mortality? Filmic looks at tough times for Nick Cave, X Japan, and the late Sharon Jones will give you some bittersweet life perspective that the Gallagher brothers, in all their morning glory, can’t. Or if you’re less interested in personalities and just want to go full muso, there’s 808, a documentary about hip-hop’s most beloved drum machine.

Here are 10 music documentaries that rocked our world in 2016.

10. Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall
Spike Lee took time out between provocative feature films to tell the fairly unprovocative story of Jackson’s rise as a solo artist after the Jackson 5’s star dimmed. As with Ron Howard doing a selective take on the Beatles’ beginnings, this allows Lee to spin an upbeat rise-and-rise yarn, and not just because it covers a scandal-free era. Let’s face it: Even the 10 people in the world who don’t like Thriller like Off the Wall, the flashpoint of joy that found Jackson throwing off any shackles for the liberation he found in as seemingly establishmentarian a partner as Quincy Jones. But the doc also covers a lesser-remembered transitional period that had the Jacksons fruitfully working with Gamble & Huff before Michael found his own groove.
(Rotten Tomatoes: 93%. Available via Showtime or for rental and download on digital platforms.)


9. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
There are no modern-day talking heads to explain Zappa’s legacy in this doc. It lives up to its title by giving us the late Zappa and only the late Zappa … along with some of the bemused and/or clueless broadcasters who had him on as a guest over the years, many obviously hoping for a freak show and surprised to find such an articulate (and, substance-wise, abstinent) guest. Zappa deserves a documentary with a little bit more context, and he’ll be getting one, with director Alex Winter at work on that now with at least some members of the warring Zappa family. But this is an entertaining curio in its own right, sketchily tracing his journey from the Mothers of Invention to mom-battling anti-PMRC crusader before his too-early exit.
(Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. Available for sale and rental on all platforms.)


8. 808
There were only 12,000 units manufactured over a period of three years of the Roland TR-808, a rhythm machine that was invented with the idea that it would only be used for demos when a drummer wasn’t available — not that it would replace drummers. Yet “the fact that it didn’t sound like real drums would end up being the 808’s attraction,” says narrator Zane Lowe. “It sounded otherworldly, futuristic. The low sonic boom of the kick, the tinny snare, cowbell, and odd-sounding handclap — these elements all combined to make it completely unique.” Even now, more than 30 years after it went out of production, “I’m assuming any producer who makes rap music has one,” says one of the movie’s celebrity endorsers, Beastie Boy Ad-Rock. “It’s like having jelly in your fridge.” Phil Collins also shows up in the doc as a pop drummer singing its praises, and rockers like New Order’s Stephen Morris are there to offer assessments like: “The maraca sound particularly sounds like a horde of marching ants.” That’s a compliment, of course. But the 808 mostly ended up changing the face of rap, as testimonials by everyone from Afrika Bambaataa to L’Trimm to Rick Rubin and Pharrell Williams confirm. You’re not just watching a documentary on a piece of machinery; you get a full-on doc about the origins of hip-hop embedded within it, as a bonus.
(No Rotten Tomatoes rating. Available for streaming on Apple Music and digital download on iTunes, exclusively.)

7. Gimme Danger
Jim Jarmusch found something stranger than fiction — and maybe even stranger than Stranger Than Paradise — in the story of the Stooges. The opening credits bill “Jim Osterberg as Iggy Pop,” as Jarmusch jumps right into the saga of a punk band fatally crippled by the bad timing of breaking up a year or two before the formal advent of punk. The early performance clips are simply amazing, if you’re under the delusion that the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones started the whole mess. Dinah Shore: “Do you think you influenced anybody?” Pop: “I think I helped wipe out the ’60s.” He’s as good a raconteur now as then, as when he’s talking about bandmate James Williamson: “As a guitarist, James fills the space as if somebody’s just let a drug dog into your house.” The most telling moment might be when Pop talks about his own earliest influence — a clown on the Howdy Doody show: “Clarabell the Clown might do anything. You didn’t know what he was going to do. It just fascinated me.” Watching the incredible early performance clips (along with those of the band’s 21st-century reunion), we know just how Iggy felt watching Clarabell.
(Rotten Tomatoes: 96%. Recently in theaters; coming to home video in January.)

6. Oasis: Supersonic
The filmmakers of Supersonic took a similar path as Ron Howard’s Beatles doc (more on that later), focusing on the earliest, more euphoric part of the band’s career. Some fans may be surprised that Supersonic cuts things off at two hours, after only having gotten as far as Oasis’s massive Knebworth shows in 1996 at the peak of the band’s popularity. But if ignoring the final 13 years of Oasis’s career makes it sound like the movie is going to be all rise and no fall, never fear: “Foreshadowing” is far too mild a word for how the documentary covers the infighting that’d doomed the relationship of the Gallaghers almost since the younger brother was in the womb. “Liam was always cooler than me,” muses Noel about his singer sibling, in voice-over. “Clothes looked better on him, and he had a better haircut, and he was funnier. Liam clearly would have liked to have my talent as a songwriter. And there’s not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could rock a parka like that.” As we see 250,000 fans gathered for the ’96 concert that is the movie’s artificially upbeat climax, Noel admits he wishes that’s where the Oasis story really ended: “We should have disappeared in a puff of smoke. But that’s what addicts do — they keep riding till the wheels come off.” As the members’ narcissism is alternately hilarious and alarming, you may feel less nostalgic for the group itself than for the very last days when a rock’n’roll band could matter that much to that many people. As Noel laments, “I have always thought that it was the last great gathering of the people before the birth of the Internet. It’s no coincidence that things like that don’t happen anymore.”
(Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. Available for sale and rental on all platforms.)


5. One More Time With Feeling
“What the f*** happened to my face?” Nick Cave asks himself in voice-over as the cameras go in for a severe, austere close-up. The rock cult hero commissioned this documentary by Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but with lacerating self-observations like that, it’s hardly a vanity project. Ostensibly, the movie is covering the making of Cave’s 2016 Skeleton Tree album. But what it’s really about is the musician’s reaction to the 2015 accidental death of his teenage son, although this event is only alluded to in the movie’s first hour and never really explained even in the second. (You’ll have to look up the details on the Web, along with any backstory you might require about Cave himself, since the film provides none.) It’s a bracing portrait of grief, coping, and existential despair, in the thin guise of a making-of project. And it’s in 3D! Widescreen black-and-white 3D, the huge camera rig for which we occasionally glimpse throughout the film. The Blu-ray comes out soon, so if you have a 3D-equipped TV set, get out your glasses— they’ll help mask your tears.
(Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Still playing select theatrical engagements; coming to home video March 3.)


4. We Are X
Every once in a rare while, audiences take a chance on a documentary about a musical subject they know nothing about, most notably with Searching for Sugar Man. This year, at least for those not already in the know about Japanese rock, that opportunity came with We Are X, a look at the metal band X Japan. On paper, some of the more outlandish elements of the group’s story make the film sound like it might be a real-life Spinal Tap. But in more significant ways, their story is a companion piece to the Nick Cave documentary, to the extent that it deals with band leader Yoshiki’s feelings about the deaths of family members and bandmates. “Even though we kind of propped the film up on these pillars of death, these three visits to graves,” says director Stephen Kijak, “it has a full-on triumphant rock concert moment,” in the form of a headlining gig at Madison Square Garden. In that, he says, it’s not unlike his last documentary, Backstreet Boys: Show ’Em What You’re Made Of: The Boys’ comeback story and X Japan’s saga are “both sort of underdog stories that end with the triumphant retaking of territory.”
(Rotten Tomatoes: 78%. Recently in theaters; coming to home video in early 2017.)


3. Mavis!
What a year for soul sisters on film. Besides the Sharon Jones doc (which comes in at No. 2 on this list), we got one on the phenomenal Mavis Staples, and while there is no cancer story or anything half that adversarial to tell, hers is just as compelling. Director Jessica Edwards is determined to focus on this last chapter in Staples’s career, examining how a woman in her 70s/80s chose to work with talents like Jeff Tweedy and keep herself relevant, even though it’d be easy and worthy to ride on the coattails of the Staples Singers’ career for a remaining lifetime. It’s a tossup as to which is better — the modern-day footage of Mavis appearing at rock festivals or the invaluable clips from the family act’s heyday as a robed gospel act and then a secular Stax standout. As Bonnie Raitt puts it, there was “something sensual about it without being salacious.” Or, as Mavis herself says, digging through old photos with her sister: “We were sexy. We were singing gospel, and we were sexy girls up there.” It still applies.
(Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Available for sale and rental on all platforms.)

2. Miss Sharon Jones!
Director Barbara Koppleman proves that you don’t have to focus on a performer’s earliest years or rise to fame to arrive at a celebratory arc. She captures Jones in the twilight of her life, dealing with the cancer that finally took her in November, finding more to crow about in the singer’s fight for her life than in anything having to do with her career trajectory. But, of course, that’s a pretty amazing story, too, and is touched on in flashbacks, as Jones became an unlikely soul sensation in her 40s after spending most of her life believing that musical success did not become her. Many greats left us in 2016, but among them only Jones got a cinematic testament as loving (and up-to-the-moment) as this remarkable and delightful parting gift.
(Rotten Tomatoes: 88%. Available for sale and rental on all platforms.)

1. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years
Martin Scorsese seized on something important when he did No Direction Home, his documentary on Bob Dylan: You don’t have to cover an important artist’s entire career — sometimes it’s the shorter arc that tells a better story. That lesson was picked up by Ron Howard, who knows just as surely as the folks who put together those 1962-66 and 1967-70 hits collection that the Beatles’ career breaks up fairly neatly into two halves, with the first being a much happier one. There’s no Let It Be bickering in this doc, just an inordinate amount of mania as he recaptures arguably the most delirious extended moment of the 20th century, at least this side of V-Day. Actually, there’s a bit of rise and fall even in Howard’s truncated narrative, as surviving members Paul and Ringo recall the frustrations of their final touring days in ’66, when being screamed at over inaudible monitors came to feel like mediocrity and mayhem, not magic. But even so, a crawl that essentially says “and then they made Sgt. Pepper” makes for a pretty happy postscript.
(Rotten Tomatoes approval rating: 95%. Available for sale and rental on all platforms.)